When you think of Disney, the last thing you’d expect from their movies would be deep social commentaries. Now there’s nothing wrong with a Disney movie that doesn’t tackle anything politically relevant because as far as I’m concerned, Disney’s forte is animating relatable family dramas and helping Pixar make grown-ass adults cry over digital fish. Just because animated stories as a whole aren’t known for dealing with some heavy shit doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of doing so, and that’s why genre busters such as Disney’s latest movie ZOOTOPIA (2016) aren’t just good examples of the medium but are important ones as well.
Set in the literal urban jungle of Zootpia where anthropomorphic animals live in a world similar to our own, rookie cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) forms an unlikely alliance with the con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to get to the bottom of a conspiracy that could endanger both the lives of many animals living in the city and the peace that’s holding the place together.
With the shitty whimsical ad campaigns Disney ran that promoted the movie as something that looked like an excessively quirky yet average talking animal adventure filled with lessons on how friendship and love solve everything, I wasn’t expecting jackshit from ZOOTOPIA but since this was a movie coming from the guys behind WRECK-IT RALPH (2012), which is coincidentally known as the movie bullshit like PIXELS (2015) wish they could be, I should’ve known better.
On the surface, ZOOTOPIA isn’t any different from the regular Disney fare starring talking animals embarking on some epic adventures especially with the familiar elements sprinkled all over its narrative. From the witty banter between the main characters to the visual humor involving cutesy animals doing human stuff plus a couple of scenes that shoehorn homages to popular live-action movies and other pop culture icons that’re bound to make a bunch snobby film critic wannabes such as yours truly giggle for a second, all ZOOTPIA needed to become a full fledged piece of forgettable animation schlock was an ill-timed musical number that’d magically resolve an entire character arc and a fucking global conflict because why the fuck not. It may have a nice story that’s beautifully realized but from a design perspective, it’s a slave to formula.
Then again, that’s only if ZOOTOPIA was seen as an animated movie that featured someone’s repressed furry fantasies about a rabbit fucking a fox and nothing more.
What makes ZOOTOPIA great is what’s underneath an all too familiar animated formula and beneath all of the animal shenanigans lies something darker and sadly, something all too real for those of us in the audience who stay as informed as they can when it comes to social issues and current events. As stated earlier, I didn’t expect much from ZOOTOPIA upon popping the DVD into the player but the last thing I was expecting was an effective allegory and commentary on goddamned social discrimination and prejudice of all things. Maybe I was ready for the typical Disney message of self-acceptance and respect, which are both featured here no less, but I wasn’t prepared to see an animated kid’s movie with a hopping bunny cop as its lead take on one of the heaviest issues of our time.
And surprisingly, the movie got it right.
My art degree in graphic design is proof that I’m no expert in the fields of social strife and racism but I can proudly (or sadly, for that matter) say that I’ve seen a lot of movies on the subject matter and a good majority of them are patronizing pieces of shit. The problem with majority of the movies that take on this particular topic is that they’re too busy trying to win golden statues instead of simply showing how fucked up racism is for any normal person on the streets. Instead of delivering a message we can relate to and hopefully learn from, what we get from bullshit such as CRASH (2004) is a lecture on how stupid we are and how bad we should all feel because discrimination happens on a daily basis and there isn’t fucking squat we can do about it. ZOOTOPIA on the other hand shows how devastating prejudice can be for its characters while showing that they can overcome it and emerge as better beings no matter what challenges they could be facing as long as they learn a thing or two about respect and diversity. The message may be saccharine and too fucking on the nose at times but it’s balanced by its subtle moments that can hit an emotional home-run in the right places and an overall positive tone that’s both a breath of fresh air and something truly needed in today’s day and age.
ZOOTOPIA’s far from perfect, especially due to the fact that it doesn’t push the boundaries of animation or creativity and there is the fact that its third act is hastily concluded with a bunch of character arc endings that range from convenient to contrived after the movie’s biggest payoff is delivered, but it stands strong among its contemporaries because of being the proud bearer of a timely and relevant story. If it weren’t for its heartfelt message in regards to a real world problem that’s still dividing people as we speak, ZOOTOPIA would’ve been dismissed as another slab of corporate sponsored escapism that was designed to suck parents’ wallets dry and keep apathetic studios financially secure for a few months. What I got instead of another vapid piece of marketing crap like MINIONS (2015) is what I can only describe as one of the more important movies made in recent memory. Animation can do a lot when its potential for storytelling is fully realized and ZOOTOPIA is proof of that. If you want to learn how you can make a difference in this world or at least teach others how to do so without bashing their fucking heads in with repetitive guilt inducing sermons, this is the movie for you.
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