Fear always works: “Zootopia” review

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I wish I could still love Frozen.

When I saw it in the theatre, I was so excited. To have such a strong feminist ending to a Disney Princess movie of all things was beyond wonderful, and whether you like it or not “Let It Go” is the dictionary example for catchy tune. But the more I thought about it, and the more it exploded across the globe, the less pleased with it I was. Its worst offense has to be its lyrics—especially when compared to the work of  previous Disney stalwarts such as Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, the wordplay of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez is cringingly substandard. Beyond that, the movie is the bearer of decidedly mixed messages. Elsa finally chooses to abandon responsibilities and repressed guilt thrust upon her and…this is a bad thing? The movie is undeniably a huge leap forward for Disney princess films, but as a piece of art it’s left me feeling wanting.

It was with this mindset that I walked into the theatre to see Zootopia, and the result was pleasant surprise. Here is a movie that engages with a nuanced sociopolitical issue at far greater length and with far greater coherency than Frozen does, and while it doesn’t pack a whole lot of surprises, it’s certainly a less flawed film than its predecessor. It’s by no means one of the great films of 2016, but it’s fun and engaging and packs a powerful moral lesson, which I’ll take from mainstream children’s entertainment.

The setup is simple enough—in this universe, the world is populated entirely by animals, and while predators and prey have ostensibly long since settled their differences, there’s still an underlying fear and mistrust present on both sides. Enter Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who spent the entirety of her childhood being cajoled by her nervous parents into staying on the carrot farm. She finally attends the city of Zootopia’s police academy and is made the first rabbit police officer in history, but is crestfallen to be assigned to the position of meter-maid rather than given any serious duties. Things take a turn when she encounters a fox hustler called Nick Wilde, who seems to confirm all the prejudices against foxes Judy’s parents have long held despite her best intentions. When multiple predators are kidnapped and Judy is assigned to the case at the last minute, she and Nick are forced to work together to find answers. A friendship ensues, but will societal pressures crush it?zootopia_nickwilde_and_judy_hopps_4_by_jd1680a-d9n0jt1

If there’s one thing Zootopia isn’t, it’s subtle, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an incredibly deft handling of racial issues, especially for a children’s film (and, for all its cartoonishness, somehow less absurd than Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq). This is a movie that passes beyond simple moral trusims such as “racism is bad” and chooses to focus very firmly on white (prey) privilege and the moral bankruptcy of color-blindness. Judy views herself as perfectly free of prejudice, and certainly appears more enlightened than her family in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, but ultimately has to come to terms with the fact that she still, at some level, harbors deep-seated discriminatory tendencies against predators in general and Nick in particular. Nick himself is initially presented as matching Judy’s negative stereotype—he’s a conman, a “thug”—but not only does he prove to be far more complex than his character would at first suggest, he rightly points out to Judy that when all of society views you as a criminal, it’s hard not to end up going along.

Spoilers from here on out, but you’ll see them coming.

There are flaws in the movie’s socioplitical outlook, and they’re present largely in how it deals with sexism. Judy is an obvious analogy for a woman who finds it impossible to advance due to sexist stereotypes and misogynistic co-workers, and this bit of metaphor is, again, unsubtle but well-executed. The problem comes with the reveal of the film’s ultimate villain: an obfuscatingly meek sheep assistant mayor who is using predators as a common enemy to unite the workers of the world. There’s a bit of feminism and a bit of Marxism mixed in here, but they just don’t gel, first because so little time is given to the assistant mayor’s character and her position and second because, well, in a movie that’s so pleasingly progressive, this bit of apparent anti-feminist backlash is bizarre. One could read it as a critique of first-wave feminism specifically, along with its lack of intersectionality, but not enough time is devoted to the subject for any coherent position to emerge. It’s also the only twist in a movie that’s otherwise incredibly predictable in terms of story; this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the flick, but it is one aspect in which Frozen is undeniably superior.

Also dismaying are the times the movie sinks into indulgent pop-culture references. There’s a Godfather homage about midway through that, while funny, diverts the film’s pacing and calls too much attention to itself; more obnoxious, if far more subtle, are the movie’s references to Frozen, which again pull the viewer out of the film. It’s not by any means a crippling tactic, but it’s used just enough that it grows tiresome.

These problems notwithstanding, Zootopia is easily the best Disney Animation film in years, and unfortunately its political message won’t fade into irrelevance anytime soon. Take your kids to it and start a conversation, go see it yourself for the lush animation and the excellent vocal performances. And if any foxes approach you on the way into the theatre, give ’em a wave.

 

 

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