In an anthropomorphic fantasy world where every animal species is a walking allegory for a real life minority group, we find the setting of the latest Disney animated production Zootopia, from the same company the put out the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, rather than the more widely known Pixar branch. The story centers on a rabbit named Judy Hopps who – just like every Disney protagonist before her – has a dream to be something more than she is and prove herself to the people surrounding her; in this case, to become the world’s first rabbit police officer.
But unlike her predecessors, it doesn’t take the entire duration of the film for her to achieve this goal and she gets what she wants fairly early on in the story, in a refreshing subversion of past Disney narrative formulas. The main crux of the film concerns Hopps attempting to solve her first case among the Zootopia police staff, while also partnering with a sly Fox who may or may not be entirely trustworthy or helpful towards her cause. And from there, a bizarrely noir-ish plot is set into motion and all manner of social-political messages are hurdled towards the youngsters in the audience, all the while proving to be a wonderfully joyous viewing experience.
Among the film’s greatest strengths, we have the two best aspects working in harmony with one another, those being the setting and the main character. While Judy Hopps shares a lot of similar traits and goals to Disney heroines that have come before her, the combination of the writing for her and the stunning voicework by Once Upon a Time alumni Ginnifer Goodwin help to create a very likable and well realized leading character that doesn’t come across as one dimensional or conventional in the slightest. Also great is the world she inhabits, with the titular setting being a fully realized and wonderfully detailed metropolis full of dazzling colors and endlessly creative designs, both adapted from our real world and invented entirely for the film. It’s truly a marvel of modern 3D animated filmmaking, and something that couldn’t have been done nearly as well in the days where traditional hand-drawn animation reigned supreme.
Oh, dreams. Disney sure loves their dreams, don’t they? Follow your dreams, don’t give up on your dreams, a dream is a wish your heart makes, etc. While it’s fair to point out that the wording and expression of this message has evolved over the decades (from “wait around until your dream makes itself real” to “go out and make your dreams come true yourself”), the message itself still remains and couldn’t be anymore tired. And as hard as Zootopia tries to differentiate itself from repeating the same ol’ homilies from generations past, the fact remains that the overreaching goals of its protagonist are shared by just about every other Disney protagonist that has come before her, to one extent or another.
All in all, whether you take the obvious social-political message into accordance or not, Zooptopia works either way you look at it. And in a year where Donald Trump being the next President of the United States is seeming like a fairly decent possibility (God help us all…), it’s nice to see a film that reminds kids – and adults, for that matter – that prejudices and personal biases are harmful and don’t do anybody any good in the end. Corny for sure, but an ultimately important message all the same.