REVIEW: Zootopia

29 02 2016

ZootopiaTalking animals, a town whose title mashes up “zoo” and “utopia,” the Disney brand – all good signs for an evening of escape away from the madness of the world around us that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, right? Actually, wrong. “Zootopia,” the latest in-house effort from the Mouse House, actually feels more plugged into contemporary problems than many “issues” movies manufactured during prestige season.

Given the escalation of the American presidential election even in the past month, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston could not have imagined how relevant the message of their script would become when they started writing back in 2013. The titular city of “Zootopia” is a metropolis of the animal kingdom and a hotbed of diversity, like New York City or Houston. Predatory animals like tigers and foxes have learned to live in harmony with their former prey like rabbits and sheep due to the evolution and adaptation of their culture.

The promise of this pluralism attracts optimistic young bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Never one to let her size or species discourage her unbridled enthusiasm for justice, she defies the odds to become the first rabbit cop in Zootopia. The average family film would simply let Hopps flounder for a bit and eventually find her footing by tapping into some inner strength. With all due respect to the charms of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Frozen,” the lessons of “Zootopia” go much deeper. They examine the very tenets that form the (now seemingly shaky) foundations of our society.

Hopps Wilde Zootopia

Though it might mix its metaphors here and there, “Zootopia” is as good a primer on institutional racism, implicit biases and intercultural misunderstanding as could ever be hoped for children. The main story hook is a kidnapping mystery, for which Hopps enlists the help of sly con artist, the fox Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman). But this feels like a mere pretext to explore the darker heart of the city, one where the temptations of tribalism threatens the promise of multiculturalism.

While making a system into the enemy might be a little too complex for some in the crowd, “Zootopia” provides the next best thing – making an ideology the villain. The film boasts no one primary antagonist. Instead, it aims its ire at whoever seems to threaten to undermine the virtues of a caring, compassionate society. Be they bellicose politicians, narrow-minded police officers, complacently settled family members or even Hopps herself, everyone possesses the capacity to corrode the ideals of a peaceful community.

None of this detracts from the good, old-fashioned fun of watching an homage to “The Godfather” or a spot-on parody of the literal sloth of government bureaucrats. But this eerily prescient social commentary adds a meaningful dimension to “Zootopia.” This matters. Children will see this and hopefully learn from it what the angry voters of this election season cannot. And in these dark times, that faint glimmer of hope for the future is ever so rejuvenating. B+3stars

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