Disney's animated features have often included moral-minded messages in their frames, but Zootopia is particularly driven in this department as it attempts to weave multiple messages through its narrative, including fashioning the whole of its titular fantasyland as a meaty metaphor for racism. Conceptually, it's an interesting approach for a family-friendly flick, but the result would work better if it didn't feel so reverse engineered. The message drives the narrative and all its inhabitants here, so this world that replaces humans with anthropomorphic animals and places them all, big and small, predator and prey, in a bustling city is a bit tough to buy into.
Anyone who can buy Pixar's world of talking Cars will no doubt accept animals wearing pants, so that's not the issue. The problem is that this plea against prejudice is clumsily constructed, forcing the metaphor of many different species caustically coexisting to be more preachy acknowledgment instead of insightful inversion. So this metaphor that operates as a commentary on melting pot society has nothing new or potent to say other than to confirm that yes, it is indeed a metaphor.
There’s also a more traditionally Disney-fied sub-message about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything you put your mind to no matter how many people underestimate you, but even this message is curiously mishandled. The protagonist is a plucky bunny named Judy (peppily voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) who wants nothing more than to shake off her carrot farmer roots in the country and head to the big city to become a cop. The movie makes it very clear very early that this is the kind of thing that bunnies simply don’t do and then it especially goes to great lengths to stack the proverbial deck against determined little Judy.
Even her parents completely discourage her from realizing her dreams in what are some of the pic’s strangest moments. The parents have a jovial attitude, but so scared are they for their daughter to embark on her own journey that they try to blatantly crush her dreams. This is all played for laughs that don’t exist and it’s a cheap, silly way to get us to back Judy.
Heightening the hero’s experience isn’t some disastrous narrative notion, but it makes her arc immediately less interesting because it paints a story that intends to be gray in stark black and white. In the beginning, nearly every introduced character not named Judy Hopps is shown to be a small-minded simpleton, making Judy’s journey to realizing her dreams a lamely predictable one since all she apparently has to do is buck the expectations of some stupid animals.
That’s trivializing Judy’s growth, but that again highlights part of the problem. There really isn’t any growth for Judy. She’s right and was right all along. She can become a cop against all odds and be an asset to the force because she’s determined and focused. There’s nothing much more for her to learn or for us to glean from her experience, other than the apparent surprise that the big city of Zootopia is not some idyllic habitat, but rather a bustling nightmare where nearly everyone is a huge jerk. Well, except for the plump cheetah working the front desk at the police station, who is instead a huge idiot.
The whole movie’s message about the need for tolerance in today’s society feels dopily dumbed down because the hero is literally the only character who sees the necessity of such understanding while every other character is mean, ignorant, or both. It’s interesting that the big city is not the ideal world Judy originally envisioned (it’s called Zootopia, of course, not merely Zootropolis, so the title is clearly and pun-ishly aiming for irony), but why do the problems of the city have to be so amplified that it becomes nearly impossible to comprehend how this society hasn’t devolved into a complete cesspool of hatefulness?
For the actual plot wrapped around the big message, Judy has to survive a flimsy buddy cop formula that teams her with a con artist fox named Nick (lent an air of smarmy cool by Jason Bateman). Nick is, to put it mildly, a dick and a thoroughly unlikable partner, but in the simple mould of Zootopia, Nick’s dickishness is wholly attributed to an awful flashback where he was bullied as a kid simply for being a fox.
The idea of all these different animals having broken down the predator/prey relationship in order to live in peace, only to find themselves still harbouring deep prejudices against each other, is very clever. And it would seem like the kind of concept that Walt Disney Animation Studios could pull off, but the execution is fuzzy.
Perhaps most shockingly, the movie simply isn’t funny. Comedy has been a consistent high point of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ mostly great current decade run, ranging from the snappy dialogue in Tangled to the sweet innocence of Olaf in Frozen to the inspired physical/visual humour in Big Hero 6. But beyond the great sloths-at-the-DMV scene already spoiled in the trailer, Zootopia feels more like a DreamWorks production when it comes to humour. It’s a bunch of half-assed one-liners and a dully outdated pop culture reference or two.
At one point during the investigation, a crime boss is introduced in a drawn-out gag with little payoff. The initial joke surrounding the reveal of which species the boss is falls flat, but it’s brilliant compared to the embarrassingly eye-rolling decision to make the whole scene a Godfather parody, as if that makes any sense for a young audience or isn’t a beaten-to-death cliché for older audience members.
Annoying and unfunny are adjectives usually reserved for DreamWorks animation. Zootopia is still better than the majority of that group's output, but it's rife with that patronizing attitude where kids are appeased with humour and ideas too lame for adults, who are supposed to be satiated with references and cameos too out of reach for children. When Tommy Chong turns up to voice a nudist hippy yak, it's clear that the movie is aiming in the wrong direction.
Zootopia marks a rare misstep for current Lasseter-led Disney animation, a message in search of a movie that treats its tale of crime and corruption as nothing more than a means to reference the most famous crime movie of all time. Seeing Disney tackle the subjects of prejudice and tolerance should be exciting because it’s bold and important, but this is an overly simplistic exploration of a very complex collection of themes.
Disney is usually much better at unpacking big ideas and making them accessible to kids. The personified animals metaphor is a good starting point, but the actual characters are mostly problematic (Judy works thanks to Goodwin) and the attempts at humour are grating. A lot of imagination went into building the ambitiously accommodating city of Zootopia, so it’s only natural to wish that more effort went into crafting its story.