For decades, Disney animation was a mythical back catalog of seldom-seen classics increasingly tarnished by disappointing later efforts that felt like half-hearted attempts to recapture lost glory. By the time Disney movies hit rock bottom around 1983, its famed animation studio was in shambles, and would either collapse entirely or resurrect itself into something bigger, bolder and better. It did the latter, sparking a ten-year renaissance that lasted to the turn of the millennium. But then, another downturn, this time with corporate infighting, controversial dealmaking, and a conversion to full CGI animation. The result kicked off a third great age of Disney animation that has turned out some of its finest work. Whatever troubles Disney had to go through to get to this point, it surely has been worth it. Otherwise, we would never have a masterpiece like Zootopia.
Set in a modern city populated by anthropomorphic animals, Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a smart, tough and ambitious rabbit who decides to go to the big city and live her dream of becoming a police officer. But soon her idealism is dashed by the culture shock of urban living, prejudice between predator and prey species, and a size-based pecking order. Her kindness and cheer often mistaken for stupidity, Hopps sticks it to her detractors by refusing to quit, and ultimately lands a missing persons case involving a few mysteriously vanished predators who supposedly have gone feral. Hopps partners with a shifty and streetwise fox named Nick Wilde to help her navigate the city’s many challenges while trying to crack a case nobody wants her to investigate. And while Hopps’ and Wilde’s relationship creaks under the strain—he is a relentless cynic; she is unbridled optimism—they eventually earn each other’s respect as they both realize they neither one fits the stereotypes so freely hung upon them, and that neither of them are as perfect-minded as they would like to believe. In Zootopia, everyone is guilty of at least some kind of –ism, and soon, our heroes discover that is at the heart of a conspiracy that threatens the very idea of Zootopia as a place where everybody can live side by side. Some very powerful people don’t want Judy and Nick to succeed, but our heroes persevere because the fate of the city is at stake, and more—the idea that faith in one’s neighbors can prevail over the fear of nearby strangers. Zootopia might not be a perfect place, but it is a place worth protecting.
All Disney movies worth mentioning try to sneak in some kind of deeper message for the benefit of its younger viewers, but Zootopia goes all in with a delightfully inventive take on how easy it is to paint others with too broad a brush, and no matter how binary you may want to see life, life will never conform to just two sides of anything. The city of Zootopia is an ambitious thought experiment about what if Noah’s Ark was a modern urban environment (minus any religious overtones) and then used that to address the myriad challenges of a multicultural society that wants to get along with itself, but finds reason not to with distressing ease.
The animation in this is a marvel, bearing out the visionary promise of Disney’s long-term gamble on computer animation. There will always be a place for hand-drawn animation, but what Disney is achieving with CGI is nothing short of breathtaking in its visual splendor and power. And we’re starting to see that power drive what kind of stories that can be told. A movie like Zootopia might have been a little too difficult to animate in an earlier era. Which is just as well, because a story like Zootopia might have been a little too difficult to tell in an earlier era, too.
Nick and Judy is a deeply compelling and relevant examination of finding common ground when you’ve got your own baggage of accumulated personal grudges, long-standing hurts and well-founded suspicions that keep you from being the most high-minded version of yourself as you’d like to be. We’d all like to be a paragon of social virtue. None of us are. We are all a work in progress.
There are a ton of hilarious and exciting scenes throughout this delightful romp of a movie. A scene in the DMV staffed by sloths is one of the most side-splitting and spot-on lampoons in recent memory, and that’s hardly the only comedic high point. The movie is festooned with them and it is just a joy to watch. Disney knows that if it’s going to preach, it needs to give it a heavy candy coating, and it does.
But when Zootopia decides to get serious, it does so masterfully. We see it best in the movie’s moment of truth, when Judy has seemingly solved her big case and gives her first press conference as the hero of the hour. Thrust into the media spotlight, she struggles to describe the crimes she has witnessed, and in a moment of weakness, she casts a shadow of suspicion upon all of the city’s predators with some poorly chosen words that go deeper than on-camera jitters. They betray things Judy really feels, even if only a little. But that’s all she needs to do hurt a lot of people. When she realizes it—and sees how badly she has hurt Nick, who has suffered just as much unfair treatment as Judy ever has—her disappointment in herself is profound, genuine and moving.
Judy’s moment is an exceptional piece of storytelling that should be watched by generations of children and adults to come, because we are all Judy Hopps. We are all Nick Wilde. And Chief Bogo. And Officer Clawhauser. And Leodore Lionheart. We yearn to speak like the eloquent and inspiring pop star Gazelle with her message of peace, friendship and hope. But all too often, we bleat like Dawn Bellwether, somewhere on a progression between fear and hatred.