Despite its considerable media hype, I wasn’t planning on seeing Zootopia, at least not in theaters. The last animated movie forced on the public like this was Inside Out, which turned out to be depressingly average. As a result, I went in to Zootopia with lower expectations.
Zootopia takes place in a world of anthropomorphic animals that have evolved past their predator/prey relationships into a human-like society. Our hero is Judy Hopps, an idealistic rabbit who dreams of being the first police officer of her species. When she arrives in urban Zootopia, she’s initially ignored by her superiors, but soon finds herself investigating a citywide conspiracy with the help of a cynical con-fox.
There’s no denying Zootopia looks great; the sequence that introduces the titular city is so lush that it’s almost narcotic. The characters are well rendered too, their faces capable of human expressions without ever losing their bestial charm. As for the jokes, they’re perfectly fine, but the biggest laughs come from blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags in the background.
Before I address the movie’s much-discussed racial element, let me provide a bit of context first. Zootopia, like Frozen and Big Hero 6 before it, is the kind of Disney movie Tumblr-frequenting millennials flock to. These people, through the Internet and in person, assured me that this children’s film about talking animals was an “important” movie that “tackled tough issues.” You see, Zootopia uses the differences between species as a means of commenting on race in the real world – and for the most part, pulls it off without being too preachy. The parallels between species and races are kept purposefully vague, a move that lets the movie be diplomatic, but keeps the satire toothless.
Which brings me to my biggest problem with Zootopia: it doesn’t go far enough. What sounds like a fun, ballsy idea for a kids’ movie falls prey to a predictably tame execution and a yawn-worthy message – one that’s spelled out for the audience in a closing speech that features empty platitudes like, “we all need to change.” There are so many missed opportunities here – how, for example, are mixed-species relationships treated in this society? Do they even exist? What about animals who identify as a species other than their own? I’ve got the perfect joke: have a mole wearing a squirrel costume – call her Rachel Mole-ezal. Throw in some black panthers too; they could address each other as “my panther.” Come on, people, this stuff writes itself!