Here we are in the middle of what is, without question, the craziest presidential election in my lifetime. Just when you think it can’t get and weirder you turn on the news and it’s like: “Woo boy! Did that just really happen?” And here’s the thing—it’s only March! What condition are we all going to be in come late October?
Perhaps the loopiest aspect of this election season is how the subject is now center stage and people who never used to think about politics suddenly can’t get enough. Everything seems to be, if not infected, then at least informed by the run for the presidency.
And that brings us to Zootopia, the latest animated film from Disney Studios, the highest grossing movie world-wide in the last two weeks and an accidental victim of the campaign. When you consider how assiduously film studios go out of their way not to alienate or offend in a kid’s movie, how furious must they be that this movie is now being viewed as an anti-You-Know-Who parable.
Which I’m sure couldn’t have been further from anyone’s mind back in 2013 when Disney began work on this story set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals. Zootopia (the city where Zootopia takes place) is a mammals-only town where 90 percent of the citizens are prey and ten percent are predators. But it’s all cool because a long, long time ago (the film isn’t clear exactly when or how) animals evolved beyond their basic instincts (i.e. hunter and hunted) and everyone lives together rather chummily in this brave new crayon-colored world.
Say hello to Judy Hopps, she’s a rabbit fresh from the sticks who, against all odds, is first in her graduating class at the police academy and wants to be the best darn tootin’ member of the Zootopia police force. It’s tricky, however, because she’s the first rabbit ever to be on the force and the rest of the officers (polar bears, rhinos, elephants, etc.) aren’t taking very kindly to this little upstart pipsqueak.
It’s your classic Hollywood set-up that becomes even more cliché when Judy stumbles across a bizarre crime and has to rely upon the assistance of a ne’ er-do-well, cunning fox named Nick Wilde who has spent most of his vulpine life just this side of the law. I will say that the “meet cute” between Judy and Nick is really funny; she crosses paths with him in the middle of a stupendously audacious con he’s pulling (along with a ludicrously funny sidekick) except she doesn’t know it’s a con and winds up as bamboozled as the patsies. Payback, and all that, because later she manages to con him and enlist his help in capturing the criminal mastermind threatening to bring down the city.
I know, I know, you’ve seen it a million times before. What’s so amazing is that the film credits eight people with “story & screenplay by… .” Eight people to write a movie the ending of which you know before you even buy your popcorn with buttery-style flavored topping.
I sometimes think the film industry works this way: One person comes up with an original, quirky idea that’s so interesting a studio head buys it—and then hires seven other people to scrub away the originality and make sure the script is exactly like the ones before it. I’m not kidding. The trailers shown before Zootopia were for the upcoming animated films The Angry Birds, Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, Storks and Ice Age 5 … and it felt like we were watching one very long preview for one very predictable movie.
But I digress. I think we can safely say that not one of the eight people who wrote it, the three people who directed it and the armada of studio execs who approved it had even the slightest desire to get tangled up in primary elections of 2016. So what happened?
The primary elections of 2016 decided to get tangled up in Zootopia. The movie’s plot is that a few predators have reverted back to their feral selves and the community is in danger; not just from the predators going after prey, but the prey—out of fear—massively curtailing the civil rights of the predators. Suddenly people … er animals who’ve lived side by side all their lives are turning against one other because certain political figures are exploiting base fears and stereotypes while the Zootopia news media amplifies the message.
And even though it’s is a complete coincidence (and beware a slight spoiler here) jokes are made about the villain’s hair.
Which, against all conventionally held wisdom, might be the reason that Zootopia’s doing such big box office. I’ve been reading a number of newspaper articles and online posts about parents who don’t know how to explain certain candidates to their children—what a relief it must be for them to take the kids to the movies and say “Here ya go!”
Though the Disney top brass might be bemoaning the fact that this movie is now being read through a political lens, I think they ought to be overjoyed because it’s really the only thing lifting Zootopia up out of the bog of overfamiliarity. Strip away the contemporary political frisson and you could swear you’ve seen this movie about seven times before.
By now the style of computer animation pioneered by Pixar is so old-hat that the visual work here barely registers. Those eight people who threw together this script have the formula down pat and know precisely when it’s time to toss in a joke for the adults, when to lean heavily on the sentimentality and when to open up the throttle for the third-act car chase stuff.
The complaint could be made that for a film about tolerance and rethinking stereotypes, Zootopia gets a lot of mileage playing on our preconceived notions of animals—foxes are wily, lemmings are brainless, sheep are timid etc. But there’s little point in calling PETA, it’s only a cartoon after all. I did find myself wondering if maybe the film turns a little dark toward the end—but what the hell?, the world’s a difficult place and the sooner the little tykes learn that the better off they’ll be.
There’s some fun work turned in by the voice actors, Jason Bateman is especially effective with his insouciant wise-cracks as Nick and Tommy Chong gets lots of laughs as a stoner yak. Idris Elba is appropriately stern as the gruff, but lovable, boss and Ginnifer Goodwin, playing the lead character, is so perfect you’d swear she is a rabbit.
It’s far from a great movie, but if you’d prefer to experience this year’s election in the form of a colorful parable, instead of mind-boggling reality, Zootopia should get your vote.
Zootopia poster art courtesy Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based critic and writer.