Zootopia: A Charming City Littered with Potholes

Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated adventure is, if nothing else, a movie of stunning ambition.  What a world we live in, where Disney of all people attempts to make a children’s movie about civic manipulations of racial tension.  I can make no complaints either about the films aesthetics.  Zootopia, as a city, is vibrant and lively, and feels living and fully realized.  The animals bristle with gorgeously rendered fur, and have wonderfully expressive features.  The dialogue and plotting is high quality, giving laugh lines at a good clip, and managing to somehow to cram a very decent buddy cop thriller into the Disney mold.  Why then, can I not manage to give this film a whole-hearted endorsement?

The answer to that question is fairly simple in brief, and monstrously complex in detail.  Zootopia’s central message is an absolute mess.  The central metaphor of animal relationships as a surrogate for the worlds various -isms (racism, primarily, but briefly touching on sexism) does not work, at a fundamental level.

Take for example, the films central pair.  Zootopia follows Judy Hopps, a ambitious, optimistic rabbit seeking to become a cop, and Nick Wilde, a fox con-artist roped in by Judy to solve an increasingly complex missing persons case.  Judy is thwarted, tokenized, and belittled at every turn, while Nick is the subject to endless pseudo-racial prejudice, and it is a testament to the films quality that the audience feels genuinely terrible for the two of them.  But if one stops to think for a moment, and draw the inteded lines of metaphor to their intended destination, those paths grow muddled and frankly disturbing.  Judy can’t compete with the other animals on the force in size, so she makes up for that with her superior intelligence and agility.  Are we implying a racial/gender ability divide?  But Nick Wilde and the rest of the films predators get it even worse.  Anti-predator sentiment runs rampant, based out of fear among the (far larger) prey community.  But how on earth does that fit into a reasoned discussion of racial prejudice?  The film acknowledges a real history of violence between the animals, that is still invoked in anger by predators within the film.  A fear would be perfectly reasonable.  The implication that prejudice is based in reasoned historical precedent (an inevitable implication with five minutes of thought) is extremely uncomfortable.

This isn’t, once again, to completely condemn the movie.  Suffering a troubled production history, and extensive last minute rewrites, it came out incredibly well for its issues, and the inconsistencies can be explained away by simply not enough time to smooth them.  The film is genuinely funny, and on a character level, fairly touching.  The plot also flows smoothly for a film of such a troubled history (avoiding some of the pacing hiccups of similarly troubled films such as “Brave”.)  Action sequences are well choreographed, and even bit characters are memorable.  However, when you’re dealing with subjects as sensitive as race and gender, precision in your message is vitally important, and the sloppy delivery casts a long shadow over the entire film.

Certainly not Disney’s worst film in recent memory, and worthy of praise for it’s noble intentions, Zootopia is a fun jaunt that both succeeds and fails on the quality of it’s premise.  The lush execution makes the film zoom by, but inconsistencies of message leave the audience less than enlightened.

2 1/2 Stars of 4

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