I may have to see Zootopia a few more times before I decide whether it’s the best 3D animated movie ever, but at the very least, it’s one of the finest combinations of smart writing, a relevant story, and inspired design since Finding Nemo or Wall-E. Is it cute? Funny? Touching? Absolutely, but it isn’t just those things. It’s also brilliant, a movie about talking animals that’s an interracial buddy cop flick, a kind of extended non-denominational race parallel (!!!), and a noir-y Chinatown homage that squeezes in nods to The Godfather, Breaking Bad, and even Training Day. Of course, no one goes to the movies for references (I hope), and they’re not really the point here. They’re just a natural side effect of world building so exuberant that the ideas fly around at a thousand miles per hour. I haven’t seen a movie that has this much fun playing in its own sandbox since Fury Road — seriously. And Zootopia has way more jokes about rabbits f*cking.
Finding Nemo had the ocean, which made for unarguably cool environments and memorable characters, but was still constrained somewhat by its fairly straightforward depiction of the natural world (aside from the fish being able to talk and such). Zootopia takes place in a fanciful world where animals don’t just talk, but wear clothes, drive cars, go to jobs, pay mortgages, etc. They live not by the laws of nature, but of capitalism. (It’s perfect for Disney, though unusually self-referential.) Predator and prey have learned to live side by side in a sprawling metropolis. Trying to realize just this one basic, and awesome, idea (animals have jobs and wear clothes!) turns every scene into a snowballing free for all. One creative choice metastasizes into ten others, the world growing exponentially, idiosyncratically but consistently, the sight gags multiplying like bunnies (sorry, bunny sex gags are contagious).
Comedy doesn’t always benefit from more cooks in the kitchen, but animation, where hundreds, if not thousands, are directly involved in the creative process, is not an auteur’s medium (with the possible exception of South Park). Zootopia, which has three directors and eight credited writers, plus God knows how many animators, seems to have figured out how to put all those extra hands to work without stepping on each other’s dicks. (Can hands step on dicks? Ignore my mixed metaphor.) Zootopia is so joke dense it’s almost a comedy fractal. Three or four jokes pass by in the background while the central bit plays out in the foreground. It’s like Naked Gun, or the counter melodies in Beethoven (so I’ve read). But in this case it plays out through the logic of animation, with different people in charge of different aspects collaborating on a whole, with each adding their own creative flourishes down to the most minuscule detail. That everyone seems to care so much and is having so much fun and is so clearly inspired by the idea gives it a kind of Voltron effect, where the collaborative whole is even better than the individually great parts.
In speaking about the animation conceptually we shouldn’t ignore the animation literally, because even just the way the fur is rendered here deserves mention. Rabbit fur, fox pelt, lion’s mane, and wildebeest dreads (oh yeah, Tommy Chong voices a stoned nudist wildebeest with a fly-covered beehive of dirty dreadlocks) all have distinct textures, creating a tableau that’s more tactile than probably any CG animation before. The only movie that comes close is Fantastic Mr. Fox, and that used real textures shot stop-motion style specifically to create that effect.
And if you think that tactile quality matters only to graphic designers and technophile pixelheads, think again. There’s a clear payoff. Why do you think people care so much about fuzzy kitties and baby seals? Why do bleeding heart city dwellers step over homeless tents to bottle-feed neglected doggies? For the simple reason that characters are naturally more sympathetic when they look plush and huggable (mammal privilege!). Turns out, that’s pretty helpful when you’re telling a story, and Zootopia plays it to the hilt (presumably utilizing the latest technological advances to do so). You don’t have to write a sociological thesis about it, but when you’re wondering why your kids aren’t bored sitting through an extended riff on Chinatown (because it’s Chinatown reenacted by adorable hamsters and sh*t, Jake!) you’ll be thankful. And to someone raised on Zoobooks and Gary Larson cartoons, populated with wolves cruising the neighborhood in hot rods and matronly disapproving cows in cat’s eye glasses, it’s endlessly giggle-inducing. It’s rare that I have to cover my mouth and try to restrain full body laugh tremors.
All that and we’ve barely gotten to the story yet. I’m already dreading the flood of inevitable Zootopia thinkpieces incited by its frequent use of somewhat provocative race parallels. The plot concerns Judy Hopps, a bunny who moves to the big city to realize her dream of becoming a police officer, defying the prevailing wisdom that says prey can’t be police. (Feminism! Defying expectations!) Her parents are terrified for her, worried she’s going to get hurt. They try to give her stun guns and fox repellent before she moves to the city. (False assumptions! Vaguely racial undertones!) She eventually strikes up an uneasy partnership with fox hustler voiced by Jason Bateman named Nick Wilde (#NotAllFoxes), hence the interracial buddy cop angle. They overcome frequent misunderstandings to uncover a political conspiracy to maintain political power by keeping the populace afraid of predators.
There’s a lot of provocative stuff there (not all of which I can cover in a spoiler-free review), and people will surely seize on the fact that there are fewer predators in Zootopia (and in nature, because of the food chain and whatnot), making them “minorities,” to call these parallels “problematic.” But it’s just not that simple. The parallels go in every direction, and you can’t pin Zootopia to a single symbology. Nick Wilde at one point touches the sheep mayor’s afro, saying “I’ve always wanted to do that,” while Judy Hopps tries to shoo him away in a “that’s not allowed!” fashion. At another, Hopps angrily demands not to be called “cute.” “You never call a rabbit cute!” she says.
The point is, any “problematic” read on Zootopia is going to require a certain amount of over-interpretation (and in either case will be way over kids’ heads). The racial parallels in Zootopia (which are sharp and funny!) are almost as dense as the comedy, but they never coalesce into a unified political view or “lesson.” One could call that “muddled,” or “offensive in some vague way I can’t articulate!”, but I think it was by design. And so much better for it.
Zootopia allows you to make your own analogies. It’s not presenting a racial treatise. It’s challenging the audience to think of the fox or the rabbit or the vole gangster or the water buffalo police chief voiced by Idris Elba, not as stand-ins for black people or Muslim immigrants or whitey, but as, well, foxes, rabbits, and voles. (Okay, the polar bear henchmen were pretty clearly Russian gangsters, but that’s hilarious.) It defies easy interpretation and refuses to be reduced down to the level of allegory. It’s playing by its own rules. And in doing so it’s teaching a much larger, better lesson. To keep an open mind and try to treat people (animals?) as individuals, not as stereotypes you’ve learned elsewhere. Zootopia isn’t about listening to what it’s telling, it’s about empowering critical thinking. It’s teaching you to not just memorize and categorize knowledge, but to synthesize. And that, to me, is absolutely the best kind of story, no matter how old the target audience is.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.