Zootopia: Great Promise, Lacking Execution

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Be warned: some spoilers below.

Zootopia is the story of a small-town bunny named Judy Hopps, who always dreamt of becoming a police officer. Like many animals, she idolized what the city of Zootopia stands for (inclusion and equality), but comes to find that even there, she is still underestimated for her species, size, and lack of ferocity.  Judy gets her chance at a missing animal case and teams up with a well-meaning but jaded fox named Nick Wilde, learning more about the Zootopian underground and uncovering a strange phenomenon of predator animals inexplicably reverting to a savage state.

I went into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about the plot (other than a few trailer snippets early on in advertising), and I can certainly see why so many are praising it. Judy and Nick are both well-acted, compelling characters, and while a lot of the plot can be obvious at times, the mystery is perpetuated in a way that is both engaging and natural.

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The animation is gorgeous and full of color; the scene where Judy rides into Zootopia on a train, taking in several of the diverse ecological districts, was pure magic. Apparently, the last time Disney intricately animated fur was Bolt, back in 2008, and this is their second time making major use of the Hyperion renderer. The look and movement of the fur when compared to reality was pretty seamless, in my opinion; not that I was focusing too much on that specifically. What I care most about, as always, is a good story, and it is in fact pretty good here.

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The music works well, although I did find the use of Shakira to be a bit of a head scratcher. On the one hand, her voice and style go well with the animal settings (see Waka Waka, aka This Time for Africa for reference), but on the other hand, she is not super relevant in main stream culture right now. Every time she made an onscreen appearance, in person or otherwise, I found myself getting distracted by trying to figure out who her character Gazelle’s human equivalent would be.

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She’s a generic pop star, but at the same time, she’s not timeless.

The message is pretty good too, not only discussing race and prejudice in a way that would make sense to children, but also illustrating that at some point, the tables can turn just as easily. When news gets out about the predators going savage, we get a montage of terrified and protesting prey animals. While chaos tears the city apart, the villain and the visuals make it plain that the prey, who are more numerous (presumably because predators are no long weeding down their populations) could rise up and become the most powerful group, perhaps eventually doing to predators what predators had previously done to them. And, as we all know, two wrongs do not make a right.

Three rights do make a left, however.

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Judy is a good character. While she is a frequent victim of stereotyping, she has her own biases, which she usually keeps under control (by thinking before she speaks/acts). She had a fox bully growing up, and Nick the fox (not her bully), who came from a poor family, was bullied out of his Boy Scouts equivalent and treated like a criminal by animals ever since. I do find it a little odd that foxes in particular are signaled out for hatred by most of the animal community though. If predator and prey came together to form an alliance at some point, was there a fox prejudice already existing on the predator side that just carried over in the transition?

But of course, no metaphor is perfect, and I’m probably thinking about it too hard. The point is that we all face unrealistic or skewed expectations at some point, and if we have nothing else in common to unite us, it should be that. We should stand up for the people…animals, whatever, who have things the worst and be compassionate for one another.

I really like Nick too. It’s probably no coincidence that the animators made him look like Robin Hood.

I do have a question about something potentially more problematic: the sloth scene at the DMV. What does it do to serve the story and the message?

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I know why the scene is there; I saw the trailers. It’s supposed to be a funny, clever commentary, although I think that is somewhat off because DMV workers are stereotyped as unpleasant people as well, not just slow. At least, as far as I know.

But let me point out a few things. First of all, a good rule of comedy is that you should never annoy your audience as much as you do your characters. By the end of that scene, which I’m pretty sure clocks out at 5-7 minutes of screen time, worst case scenario: you are more annoyed than Judy is.

Second, the DMV scene pretty much obliterates any built-up tension that the film had going for it, all for a joke that goes on way too long. And does it pay off in any way, other than a throw-away joke to close out the movie? No. Other than Judy and Nick getting what they need and reestablishing the fact that he’s screwing with her for fun, no. The scene would have been funnier a) if they didn’t put it in every trailer playing at every commercial break on every channel, and b) if it was shorter.

Third of all, and probably the most important from a parent’s perspective, if the message of the movie is that racism is bad and it can work both ways and we all have to make a conscious effort to fight it, isn’t it detrimental to have so much stereotype-based humor throughout the movie?

I mean, I guess most characters that we are supposed to laugh at get a scene of reprieve at some point (Mr. Big being a small animal, Flash speeding through traffic, etc etc), but personally, I think that muddies a perfectly good message more than a little bit. I laughed at the wolves howling scene, but Nick points that out as a stereotype that he doesn’t understand beforehand, and then it’s never debunked or even brought up again. Apparently once one wolf starts, others can’t help but join in.

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What does that teach kids? “Stereotyping is wrong and hurts people, but it sure is funny, right?” I guess it’s okay if you just never mention it to the wolf but continue to hold that belief and laugh at it behind his back. And what does that mean for Judy’s ill-thought-out “it’s in predators’ genes” explanation? If that’s somewhat true, is it just dismissed because it’s not considered politically correct anymore?

Kids might not pay that close attention, but for a good period of time in mental development, they have a black-and-white mentality (pardon the pun). It’s hard to teach them about shades of grey because those don’t come out in concise, bumper sticker slogans. You can, for example, tell them that killing someone is wrong, but you probably can’t explain to them that “oh, but it’s somewhat okay, say, if someone broke into your home and threatened you and/or your family and there was no other way to disarm them and the police weren’t there,” or more simply, “kill only if you feel your own life is threatened.” They just won’t comprehend certain intricacies and distinctions like that.

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So yeah, those jokes in particular weren’t very good. Really, the humor overall seemed to be out-of-place. It was fairly obvious like aspects of the plot itself, but hey, it was definitely more aimed at kids themselves than their families. The jokes that were meant for adults would have been funny if they didn’t, again, go on for too long or were “bash-you-over-the-head” obvious. The line-for-line Godfather reference was painful, and I’ve never even seen that movie.

I did chuckle at the chemist rams being named Walt and Jessie, but wow, tone whiplash with that one. Disney, why do you want me thinking about Breaking Bad during this movie?

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You might argue that there are plenty of dark moments – the Godfather scene included – in Zootopia, but nothing quite as dark as a montage of prisoners getting shanked and gruesomely murdered. I’m not sure even your Hunchback of Notre Dame movie got anywhere close to that dark, and you know what? I think I’m good with that.

Zootopia doesn’t quite hit the eye-rolling level that most kid films do, where there is so much modern-day technology and pop-culture pandering, but it certainly edges the mark a couple of times.

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Overall, I like the movie, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think kids would have liked it without any jokes, and the story would have been that much stronger for it. I have to say that a lot of good potential is wasted by skewing the intended audience so young, and my theatre buddy even said that the story could have been even stronger and more relevant set in present day, with real people.

But you get what you get, and what I got was decent.

 

6.5/10

*All pictures and gifs, excluding one, belong to Disney.

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