Many family films are at least some degree of ‘political’. It is usually quite slight, but often there are hints at things like liberal ideals, big corporation condemnation, environmental considerations and a whole lot of other little injustices that are hinted, but rarely mined deep enough to alienate anyone. Zootropolis is another beast. To come out and say that film is deeply political, would be a little overbearing, but the film has a thematic target in its sights and wears that on its sleeve. And it’s one that is especially pertinent today in the current political climate worldwide.
Let’s back up a second though.
Zootropolis, or Zootopia depending on which continent you reside on, is Disney’s latest animated feature coming from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Headed by directors Byron Howard (Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck it-Ralph) and co-director Jared Bush, the film has a pretty simple premise. In a world where predators and prey became sentient and grew past their primal nature to live in harmony, the animal kingdom has grown to live side by side, the hub of which is the city of Zootopia. This is the destination for Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who becomes the first bunny ever to be enlisted to the police force. In her early beat, she runs into the sly confox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and through a missing persons case, the two find themselves having to rely on one another to solve it.
As a family film, Zootropolis is largely successful. It has a fairly vibrant art direction that will delight the eyes, and the world of Zootopia, while on the surface appears standard fair, proves to be a complex and interesting creation. It’s full of several well realised characters, not least of all the two leads. Hopps goes on the journey that is, perhaps ironically, very human as someone who gets out of education with dreams and hopes before reality sets in after leaving the coup. She’s a lovingly conceived character who burdens the film’s lofty goals perfectly. Wilde on the other hand has a lovely bit of cynicism to him, making sure the balance is struck between the two. Idris Elba is great as police chief Bogo, JK Simmons makes a surprisingly short but sweet go of Mayor Lionheart and the rest of the cast turn up to give a good showing. This is all supported by a pretty engaging central mystery that really ties the themes together, along with plenty of visual gags that use the concept of sentient animals as well. The sloth scene is a real highlight in this regard.
On those terms, Zootropolis is a decent family movie that is easy enough to enjoy. What really, really makes the film interesting though is its focus on politics. Trying to tip toe around too many spoilers, the film has a pretty clear political focus, and that’s one of societal prejudice, most specifically that of race. The film isn’t lightly hinting at this either, it bravely runs headlong into the issue by making it the entire premise of the central narrative. Setting up Zootopia as a boiling pot that mixes herbivores and predators, the film is very interested in the quiet reservations the two groups have about each other. Through the corse of the film that division stops being so quiet though, as the media and social politics drive a bigger and bigger wedge between the two groups
While this could have be a little heavy handed, and at the rarest of times it can be, for the most part the theme is well written and evenly considered. It’s not black and white, and the character we root for also indulge in their own prejudices about the other group, helping to create a morally complex society. This isn’t the idealised harmony Hopps thought it was, and the film is about coming to terms with that. This actually feels like it takes from great Sci-Fi movie, in the ilk of District 9, that uses a metaphorical society to talk about our own. It’s very well done indeed.
Framing this all as a buddy cop movie of sorts, it gives the characters real impotence to drive through the story. It plays with the conventions of the genre quite nicely, giving us a pretty neat look at the fabric of the city and, crucially its underbelly all helping to build the genuinely engaging missing persons case. It’s a neat framing device and shows a decent awareness of what it is drawing from that should delight fans of the genre that ran wild in the mid-80s.
Putting that all to the side though, Zootropolis is a lovely little family film, with plenty to enjoy for all. Clever character work, a sense of fun and a world more interesting than ‘a city of animals’ might’ve suggested help elevate this as a Disney movie. This is clearly helmed by a studio and directors that ‘get’ what goes into a great animated feature. However, what makes Zootropolis unique is its core metaphor for a socio-political hot button topic and how bravely it dives in a examines it. It’s smart, well thought through and something refreshing to see tackled in a family movie, especially one produced by Disney. There is genuine nuance to it too, making it go down much easier. Like I said, it only felt a little overbearing perhaps once or twice, which is actually very good going considering the subject matter. Zootropolis is something you should definitely take some time out to go see, preferably with a few young ones (but even without!). It’s an interesting little film, and one that will likely stay with you a for quite a bit after, regardless of what you think about its central thesis.