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March 21, 2016

Disney’s Zootopia: Stunning Animation with Social Commentary

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It’d be hard to imagine anyone hasn’t heard the hype around Walt Disney’s 55th entry into their animated canon. The film has dominated the box office for the past three weekends — even overshadowing the release of Allegiant — and it’s not hard to see why. Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, combines wit, charm and fun with sharp social commentary, creating an experience that is truly unforgettable.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DISNEY

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DISNEY

The story revolves around a rabbit named Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who — true to Disney standards — is a bright-eyed dreamer who wants to make the world a better place. She feels that the best way to do this is to become a police officer, but faces obstruction from people around her who point out that there’s never been a rabbit police officer before. While on the job, she runs into a smooth-talking fox named Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, and they end up working together to crack a case that exposes a massive conspiracy threatening the very existence of the city.

Now, at this point, many people may be thinking that this is traditional Disney fare: talking animals doing human things, a message about being kind to others, nothing particularly original or exciting. However, Zootopia excels at driving these elements to heights that Disney has not reached before. First of all, the world built around the titular city of Zootopia is a mastercraft of imagination. Other films have talking animals in a human world. Here, the world is very distinctly animal; instead of repurposing our own world, the movie’s designers have re-engineered society from the ground up to create something that feels organic and takes our breath away. The sequence that introduces us to the city is visually impressive and dripping with creativity, as well as puns. That’s not to say that the world is completely unrecognizable from ours. Animals walk around texting on smartphones, they cut in front of cars on the street, they celebrate pop stars and take part in activist rallies. Zootopia is a perfect balance between familiarity, so we can identify with their society, and originality, so that our curiosity is piqued and we are invited to learn more.

Of course, pretty visuals can only offer so much without good writing behind them. Luckily, Zootopia delivers here as well. Every single character is compelling and memorable, even down to minor characters. Of course, the center of attention is on the two protagonists, Judy and Nick, and they meet and exceed their duties as main characters. Judy is an idealistic role model, who at first enthusiastically buys into Zootopia’s slogan of “Anyone can be anything!” Of course, she quickly learns that the mantra is not reflected in reality, but she refuses to let go of her optimism. That’s not to say she’s dumb or naive about it; indeed, she proves herself to be a clever and quick-thinking character always determined to stand up for what’s right. On the other side of the aisle is Nick, a charming and cynical con artist whose main business involves illicit popsicle sales. He’s the guy who knows everyone on the street, and he is the wake-up call for Judy that draws her from her dreams of utopia. The duo deliver a fantastic energy to the screen that makes the humor funnier, the drama more palpable and the action more engaging. Even more importantly, the characters help each other grow, creating a pair of compelling arcs that intertwine to build an engaging plot.

Everything I’ve described talks about what makes Zootopia a good movie.  But there is one more element that makes it go above and beyond typical animation: the message. Zootopia delivers a powerful moral about racism, sexism and discrimination in many forms. Of course many children’s movies have played with this same theme before, but with a ham-handed approach that usually translates to, “Don’t be mean if someone’s different!” This simple message suits a preschool classroom, but lacks the adult perspective needed to apply to the real world. Zootopia excels at lampooning this approach, and then at actually tackling these themes in a way that displays nuance and an understanding that these issues are very serious and real. Right in the first five minutes, an incident of playground violence establishes that we’re going to be seeing something sincere and meaningful, and the film does not fail to deliver. Scenes and lines echo civil rights movements both past and present. The film talks about tokenism; it shows politicians extolling diversity in front of a podium, and then failing to practice their words; it displays how people who face prejudice can harbor prejudices of their own; perhaps most chillingly, it discusses the political benefit of hatred and identifying internal enemies. Anyone who’s been keeping up with the presidential races can see where this message fits perfectly within our national discourse.  Already the film has inspired me to open new dialogues with people about discrimination in our society — I doubt many animated movies, or even films in general, can claim they’ve accomplished anything similar.

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Step aside Frozen; Zootopia is without a doubt the best movie that Disney has put out in years, and arguably one of the most important ones as well. It’s a great film in its own right, but it also goes above and beyond to deliver brilliant commentary on a current issue. When you consider that an animated film takes about four years to make, putting Zootopia’s genesis before the events of Ferguson and the start of Black Lives Matter, that timing is unbelievable. When you realize a cartoon rabbit and fox display more social responsibility than certain presidential candidates, that is equally unbelievable.

David Gouldthorpe is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu.

2 thoughts on “Disney’s Zootopia: Stunning Animation with Social Commentary

  1. My daughter of 3 loved it and honestly I didn’t mind watching it with her. the story is good and the characters are funny, what more do you want from a child movie? 🙂

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