Disney Animation Studios released two movies in 2016. The first, Zootopia, released in March. It was one of four movies that earned more than $1 billion that year, all of which were released by Disney. In case you’re curious, the others are Finding Dory, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Captain America: Civil War. The fifth most profitable movie of the year, the live action remake of The Jungle Book, was also released by Disney. That’s how dominant the Disney Corporation is in the entertainment business right now. It’s the only company ever to have the top 5 movies released in a single year, and even the first company to release the top 3 domestically since 1913. It’s also the first time a company earned more than $7 billion in a single year across all of its releases.
Anyway, Byron Howard (who co-directed Bolt and Tangled), pitched six different story ideas at once. Three of them involved animal characters, and they each resembled Robin Hood in minor ways. One of them was a Three Musketeers adaptation. One of the concepts featured animals living in a human-like culture, with big cities and country sides. John Lasseter really liked the idea. What originally started as a 60’s style spy thriller eventually turned into a buddy cop film of sorts.
Zootopia stars Judy Hopps, an optimistic young rabbit who dreams of becoming the first ever cop of her species. Her introduction shows her drive even as a young child, when she risks personal injury at the hands of a fox bully to help her friends. There’s also a montage showing her struggling at the Police Academy due to her size, only to progress using quick thinking and strategy. In that sense, this movie embraces the “follow your dreams” message that’s core to a lot of Disney classics, going all the way back to Pinocchio and being explored deeper than ever in Tangled.
Of course, Judy still faces discrimination when she joins the cops, being sent on parking duty by the chief (a buffalo), who doubts her potential because she’s so small. Still, her boundless optimism and high level of energy helps her stay positive during her parking patrol. Somehow it makes her likeable even as she’s handing out parking tickets – that’s no easy task.
When the second main character, a sly fox called Nick Wild, starts acting all suspicious, Judy watches him for a moment. Like everyone else, she’s naturally suspicious of the fox until he appears to only want to buy ice cream for his son. Of course it turns out that he is pulling some sort of scheme.
At some point, Judy lands a big missing animal case, but the chief, still doubting her potential, gives her 48 hours to either solve the case or resign. When she learns that Nick Wild may know something about the case, she convinces him to help her by gaining undeniable evidence that he’s a fraudster. Although they don’t like each other at first, they’re forced to work together. Judy because she needs his help, and Nick because of the incriminating evidence she has. Overtime, they almost become like brother and sister.
The mystery itself flows like a normal buddy cop film, with the two running into questionable people every now and then. There’s an occasional fight scene or chase scene, and some moments where they’re sneaking around and recording secret conversations on a phone camera. There are a couple plot twists and reveals along the way. I won’t spoil what happens since some of the reveals completely change the direction of the story. Even some of the characters themselves are plot reveals.
Instead, I’ll talk about the movie’s core themes. This movie explores racism on several levels. It talks about the general fear society shows towards predators. It shows people doubting a little rabbit’s potential and a fox’s honesty. At one point where Judy and Nick are talking, Nick shares how he wanted to be an honest man, but because nobody trusts foxes, it forced him to be a con artist in order to even survive in the city. In some ways these themes are very well explored.
However at the same time, the themes are harmed by some of the animal portrayals. You’ve got Judy the rabbit, whose last name is Hopps. Nick doesn’t want to be seen as a trickster, yet he’s naturally good at it. Also, Judy is one of several hundred children. You know the phrase breeding like rabbits? Her parents do exactly that. It’s like the movie wants to explore themes of racism, yet even in universe, a lot of the animal stereotypes are absolutely true. Rabbits breed a lot, and they’re not going to take down a bull in a one-on-one fight. Sloths move slowly. Wolves tend to howl in groups. I won’t go so far as to say it ruins the message, but the more you think about it, the more it confuses the message.
If you ignore these issues, it is still a good movie. The storytelling is good, the characters are likeable and you feel their struggles. It’s usually funny when it tries to be. The action is fast paced and fun. The plot twists have some good foreshadowing without completely blowing them.
And of course the animation is brilliant. Zootopia borrows heavily from the advancements made in recent Disney movies like Tangled’s hair advancements, Frozen’s weather innovations (especially during Judy’s train ride through various parts of the city) and Big Hero 6’s lighting innovations. It’s also worth noting that both Zootopia and Moana (the other Disney Animation Studios movie released in 2016), were animated in makeshift headquarters because the main studio in Burbank was being renovated at the time.
In addition to its massive profits, Zootopia received very high critical reception. It’s got a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.8/10. It earned the academy award for Best Animated Feature against even Finding Dory. Some critics have the same complaints I do about the confused message, but they all agree that it’s a likeable movie.
Because of the confused message I don’t think this is up there with the best animated Disney movies and I don’t think it deserved all of its hype and critical praise, but it is still well worth a watch. It’s a buddy cop movie with animals, featuring a boundlessly optimistic lead despite everything going against her, and a sly fox who’s had to resort to scams to survive in the big city. It does a good job with the “follow your dreams” theme, and it ends on a hopeful note.
The last movie remaining in this blog marathon is Moana, and I watched it not long before I started this blog series. After that I’ll be taking a break from movie posts, save for a couple lists. However I do want to do another one of these movie blog marathons in the near future. It won’t be something with as many as 56 movies – probably closer to the teen-20 something range. I’ll probably discuss the options I’m considering in the next few days, in its own post.