screenplay by Jared Bush & Phil Johnston
directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
by Walter Chaw Early on in Disney's Zootopia, directed somehow by a triumvirate (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush) from a screenplay by Bush and Phil Johnston, a baby fox declares that it would like to grow up to be an elephant. It even has an elephant hoodie; the creature idolizes, it appears, elephant culture. It gets a laugh. It's worth the conversation to wonder what about this is funny. At its essence, the idea that something could grow to be something else is funny. It's also funny because it knowingly, gently pokes fun at our culture of "you can be anything you want to be," the source of more sometimes-murderous disappointment than any other child-rearing strategy endemic to the West. Astronaut? No problem. And Zootopia opens on a children's pageant where a little animal solemnly declares that where in primordial times he would have been predator or prey, in civilized times, he has the choice to maybe be an astronaut, or an accountant. The third way this is funny is harsher, in that it begins to touch on the truism that there are certain traits you're born with, and while that's a no-brainer when it comes to the rest of the animal kingdom, it's a tough thing for most proud Judeo-Christians to accept. We have hardwiring, see, and accepting that means there are a lot of other things we need to accept as well, almost none of them politically correct and all of them fraught with delicate dancing around the issue. Zootopia is complicated as hell.
Zootopia tells the tale of officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who, as a bunny, is slotted for life as a carrot farmer and not, as she dreams, a hard-nosed gumshoe fighting crime in the titular multi- cultural/species metropolis. One girds oneself for another iteration of a plucky protag believing in herself and triumphing against overwhelming odds. Indeed, that's the part of the film that's easy. The part of the film that's hard comprises the bullying sequences where a fox pup reminds Judy that there's a food chain, and another scene where a different fox pup is taught that he'll always be seen as untrustworthy, sneaky, predatory. It's a broad allegory for race--an even broader allegory for our current culture of fear and the despicable fear-mongering that passes for political discourse now and ever. The picture even finds time to take a swipe at a sensationalist media looking for a way to sell copy through the terror of its readership. It's tempting to say this is a new phenomena, but we've always been stupid. Because we're animals. Apes. Sex and violence and food are our primary motivators. The broad allegories are fine. The fine allegory is this identification that we are base creatures, essentially simple, driven by ignoble, unconscious, evolved reactions and prejudices that can only be overcome at great cost and with unusual commitment. It's easier to "go savage," as the film will call it, than it is to appeal to the angels of our better nature.
Judy enrols in the police academy, survives through pluck and resourcefulness, and makes her way to the big city, the introduction of which well and truly took my breath away. It's a mélange, a literal menagerie of creatures who've evolved beyond their native disagreements and live amongst each other in peace and harmony. The picture never talks about the issue of consumption (the fox hero seems to be vegan), leaving it all vaguely disturbing. I wondered more than once if the Zootopia police ever checked the crawlspaces of the mayor, a lion. Friendless on a force that considers her to be adorable but physically weak and skittish, our heroine pairs with con-man Nick (Jason Bateman), a fox who notices immediately, though he won't say anything until later, that Judy wears a can of fox-repellent on her belt. They have 48 hours to prove themselves by solving a troubling case of fourteen missing mammals abducted by something called the "Night Howlers." It's no accident, this shoutout to Walter Hill's classic 48Hrs.--not in the buddy aspect (they really weren't buddies in Hill's film), but in the irresolvable racial tension of the piece. It's one of the hidden references in a film that declares its intention isn't necessarily to excoriate the obvious targets, but to urge introspection, George Orwell-like, that it's easy to see the bestial in animals and that, hey, we're animals.
There are broad strokes in Zootopia that distract from its more serious ruminations (a gag at a DMV run by sloths, an extended con involving lemming businessmen, a Godfather bit that's beautifully-played yet superfluous, an epilogue that drags), but I'd argue that its lack of focus affords time to stretch out in the movie's brilliantly-realized world and allows its moments of incision to cut that much deeper. It appears the missing mammals are all predators (even a mild-mannered otter, who is, after all, a hunter), and that they've mysteriously reverted back to their animal selves. It's startling in this context to see a panther running amuck--it speaks a little to the attraction of the werewolf mythology in unearthing the animal just beneath the skin. What's that line from Neil Jordan's In the Company of Wolves? "The worst wolves are hairy on the inside." Zootopia handily answers the question of what would happen if one of those adorably anthropomorphized Disney animals acted like an animal. It's not pretty. The lamb assistant mayor (Jenny Slate), representing the majority of prey animals in Zootopia, seizes on the narrative offered by Judy herself that there must be something biological in predators that makes them predisposed to going psycho. This causes a panic. Predators are discriminated against. They lose their jobs. People decline to sit by them on public transportation. It's easy to see this is as an indictment of how we treat, and have always treated, groups we identify as the Other. More challenging is to say there's something hardwired in all of us that makes this the easy way to respond in any crisis. Zootopia is much like The Incredibles in that both are children's entertainments that teach children they are, for good and for bad, born a certain way, with wondrous strengths and obvious limitations. The illness in our society comes from the artificial stratification, and defensive denial, of original difference. Zootopia is a good conversation to have.