I’ve been avoiding writing about this movie. Not because it’s bad. Hell no. Exact opposite. But because there’s just so much meat there that I’m not even sure where to start.
Well, I’ll start by saying that I absolutely loved this movie, and that I almost didn’t see it. After my feeling of profound meh from Frozen and my increasing grumpiness at how damn oversaturated everything to do with that movie was, I was a bit done with Disney. Honestly, the only thing that convinced me to give Zootopia a chance was seeing an article where it got mentioned what a big deal it is that there isn’t a romance plot.
From a Disney movie. (Setting Pixar films aside, here, as their own thing.) No romance plot. Okay. You have my attention. That’s all I knew going in.
It’s a fun story. Small-town bunny Judy Hopps goes to the big city, Zootopia, to follow her dream of becoming a police officer. Zootopia is an amazing mix of technologically created biomes, where predator and prey animals live together in relative harmony via handwavium that’s never explained and really doesn’t need to be. Judy’s the first bunny to ever become a cop in a police force that’s really controlled by size more than anything else; she’s tiny compared to the big cats, water buffalo, bears, hippopotami, and other big mammals that dominate the force. She gets assigned to write parking tickets, where she runs across conman fox Nick Wilde and gets hustled by him. Not long after, in the right place at the right time and on the verge of being fired, she picks up an abduction case. With no resources and no help to be found within her department, she pulls her own hustle on Nick to force him to help her, and it all proceeds from there.
I’m a sucker for a good buddy cop comedy. I really didn’t expect this one to kick everything but Hot Fuzz out of its way, but Nick and Judy (how many cross-gender buddy cop duos have we had? Not bloody many) have firmly found a place in my heart right next to Nick and Danny. Just on the level of a buddy cop movie, Zootopia succeeds beautifully. It’s got a fun case with some twists in it that I didn’t expect. It’s got a lot of comedy, much of it based on the setting and mammal jokes. I’m going to end up buying a Disney animated film for the first time in years because I enjoyed it so much and I love these characters.
But what makes Zootopia special and incisive is that it acknowledges not just the existence of prejudice (racism, sexism, classism) but privilege as well, and the interplay between them. I’d caution against taking the allegory too literally. If nothing else, there’s an odd interaction along the predator/prey divide, where prey animals still haven’t forgotten the “savage” days when predators ate them and thus remember the fear and distrust, while in the modern city of Zootopia, the predators only make up about 10% of the population. It’s not something that has a direct analog to any part of the modern world that I’m aware of, and that’s okay.
I suppose technically what follows could be considered a spoiler, but I’m going to talk in generalities here.
Judy’s the underdog character for much of the movie. She’s a small town girl, viewed as a hick in a big city, fighting to find her place in a department that’s generally hostile toward her because of who she is. Yet we see her exercise her own privilege over the fox, Nick, in little ways and then big, awful ways. She calls him articulate. And in a scene midway through the film that I found incredibly difficult to watch, she vilifies predators as a whole and does incalculable harm to them by telling the truth as she sees it. She’s even initially puzzled why Nick is so hurt. Because she just told the truth, right, why is he so upset, he’s her friend and he’s different. Ow, ow, ow. As a reminder that just because you face oppression of your own (for being LGBT, say) doesn’t mean you don’t also have privilege you can wield to devastating effect, it’s razor sharp.
And of course, yes, let’s talk about vilifying a minority group as a means to gain and maintain political power. It’s definitely not the first time a movie’s made that point, but it’s worth making again and again until people fucking listen. It was a cringe-worthy irony that the theater I watched Zootopia in was right across from one playing London Has Fallen.
Zootopia is good. It punched my soul in the kidneys. But it’s funny. There are sloths in the DMV. And I’m going to dream of an ever so slightly different ending, in which Judy turns to Nick and says, “Little hand says it’s time to rock and roll.”