The first teaser trailer for Zootopia was greeted with a lot of puzzlement. It was an ad that focused on the film’s basic setup: a world exactly like ours, but filled with anthropomorphic animals. For many people, the whole idea of an ad focused on that seemed ridiculous – isn’t that the premise of half of Disney’s films anyway? It’s not like such an idea was wholly new or original. So why focus on that in your teaser?
Because, as it turns out, that’s not just the basic idea of Zootopia; it’s, in many ways, the basis for the film’s thematic depth. Because when the teaser tells you that it’s just like our world, that’s an important detail – it is just like our world, down to the racism, prejudice, uneasy relationships with the police, and so much more. Zootopia may be just a movie about anthropomorphic animals, but it’s also a parable about prejudice and judgment, and the way we assume so much about people based off of their looks.
I had heard a bit to that effect by the time I finally saw Zootopia, but even knowing it, I was a bit surprised by how thoughtful the film was with its metaphor. Now, to be sure, it doesn’t always work entirely; while the film often features characters judging each other based off of their species (foxes are untrustworthy and deceptive, rabbits are cute and stupid), it also ends up sorting everyone into broader categories of predator and prey, which ends up jumbling up the metaphor a bit more than it needs to be. And yet, even so, there’s more substance to the film than I expected, as characters deal with their own assumptions, discuss how their lives are often shaped by the prejudice they face on a daily basis, and even debate the reality that judgment and racism exists even in a modern world when we pretend it doesn’t.
Here’s what I didn’t know about Zootopia going into it: that it’s basically a cop movie, through and through. Not only is it a cop movie, it’s one based on all kinds of hoary old chestnuts: a rookie, overzealous cop; a rough, demanding supervisor; a streetwise partner (this one a criminal, which is straight out of 48 Hours)…it’s all kinds of things you’ve seen before, but put into a kids’ animated film. And yet, it all works pretty well, spinning a surprisingly interesting story that unfolds in unexpected ways, and delivering a kids movie that’s got a more complex story than most – for better and for worse. (That is, it’s mostly for the better if you’re a parent or an older kid; for the worse if you’ve got a younger kid, who’s going to get a little bored during some of the more expositional sequences.) In other words, it’s generally just a better movie than I expected it to be – then again, given that all I expected was a bunch of terrible puns like “Trader Yak’s” and things like that (which, to be fair, are still there aplenty), that’s not saying too much.
In general, then, there’s a lot to recommend about Zootopia. It’s more ambitious than it needs to be, and more thoughtful, and both of those are always a plus in my book. No, it doesn’t always work, and it goes on a little too long; while I like the third act and the direction in which the film goes, it still feels a little too long, a little stretched thin. And while the shoehorned pop culture references aren’t overwhelming, they’re still there, and still pretty painful, especially when it comes to a pop singer everyone’s obsessed with. So, yes, it’s uneven, and flawed. But it’s also more thoughtful, complex, insightful, and (though I hate using this word) important than you would have any reason to assume. I mean, who assumes that a Disney film would be dedicated to exploring racism and prejudice? And that, as much as anything else, makes it a film that’s well worth taking your kids to.