Fishbreath Watches: Zootopia

I went into Zootopia with moderate expectations—I had heard good things, but even as a fan of animated movies, I wasn’t expecting anything to boggle the mind. Ultimately, I was still expecting a kids movie with crossover appeal.

This is not what Disney delivered. Zootopia starts out a cheerful-seeming puff piece; by the end, it has taken on an almost noirish feel, telling a pitch-perfect buddy cop story in an exquisitely-detailed world. I can’t say much more without giving away plot points, and the plot is so well-crafted I would feel guilty doing so, but really. If you’re skeptical, fear not: it is not what the previews suggest it is. It’s much better. Go see it. I have not yet heard anyone credible claim to be disappointed.

Done? Cool. I’m going to employ a piece of sorcery most arcane known as ‘the fold’ to hide possible spoilers from casual readers. (Very minor—I’m extremely allergic to spoilers. If you don’t mind non-specific remarks about the flow of the plot through the three acts, you’ll be fine.) Join me on the other side.

There. Now we can get down to brass tacks. What makes Zootopia good? I have three reasons for you.

First, Disney has finally learned the Pixar lesson: that is, you’re better off (critically and financially) making a good movie which is suitable for children, rather than making a movie for children and trying to sweeten the pot for parents with the occasional under-the-radar joke. All of the best animated movies deal with themes that resonate with adults as much as with children: Inside Out speaks to mental health, the rich inner life of others, and homesickness. The Incredibles talks about mediocrity, the meaning of being special, and the nature of heroism. Note that both of those examples are Pixar movies, but Disney has been coming on strong of late: Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 both dabble in the same sort of moviemaking, but slant a bit too far toward ‘kids movie first’ to be part of the same conversation. Zootopia does not. It is not a dumbed-down movie: it says something about a complicated issue in its world, and manages not to be condescending or reductive when that lesson is applied to ours. (More on this later.)

In the same vein, Zootopia gets high marks for its storytelling fundamentals. It hits its character beats with panache; by the time we hear characters telling us about, say, Judy’s personality, we’ve already seen what they’re telling us, and we can nod along in approval. The interplay between Judy and Nick is brilliantly written and executed, and even minor characters end up surprisingly deep. It’s easy to forget that they’re animated animals, so relatable are their struggles, mistakes, and hard-won victories. The plot is tight, with very little excess. The false end at the end of the second act leads into a lovely ‘just how deep the rabbit hole goes’1 moment as the full nature of the conspiracy is revealed in the third act. Like most mysteries, solid application of reason, or careful watching, will reveal the ultimate antagonist before the protagonists get there. (My mother figured it out; I did not. That means it resists trivial analysis, but yields to more rigor.)

I said we’d get back to the lesson Zootopia is trying to teach: namely, that egalitarianism is good. That is more or less that: bits and pieces of Zootopia’s world might be taken as references to race problems today, or apartheid in the past, but the movie’s world doesn’t map one-to-one to our own. This, I would argue, is a good thing: when media hews too closely to the real world and calls out some subset of its population as villainous, it no longer communicates its message effectively. (Consider: if you say something which half of your audience dismisses out of hand, and nobody is convinced, have you communicated effectively? Obviously, no.) Zootopia succeeds in saying something interesting (and complicated, too, for a movie ostensibly for children) without being offensive, in a way it’s hard to disagree with. Most more serious movies which claim to have a message don’t do nearly as well.

What more is there to say? The writing is honed by the traditional animated-family-movie gaggle of writers to a razor edge: it’s outright funny in some places and witty throughout, the bit with the sloths is perhaps the most cutting commentary on the human condition in the whole movie, and from start to end it overflows with joy (and detailed worldbuilding). Even parvusimperator, that most curmudgeonly of contributors, made grunting noises to the effect that it wasn’t bad. If he could find it in his blackened, heart-shaped thoracic cavity of his to enjoy a colorful children’s movie, so can you. Go see it.

1. Sorry2.
2. Not really.

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