Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Fable On Racism Gets PG Treatment: Zootopia

The Good: Moments of theme, Some good voicework, Decent animation
The Bad: Predictable reversals, Obvious character arcs, Troubling theme issues
The Basics: Disney's fable Zootopia is well-executed, even when it is obvious and there are issues with the theme.

When it comes to reviewing media works, one of the reasons so many people flock to the early reviews is that any interpretation one reads there is bound to be original. In fact, one of the dangers of reviewing older works - even those only a few months old like the Disney animated film Zootopia - is that a reviewer can find their interpretation of a movie to be one that is entirely derivative. Disney animated films are not my cup of tea all the time, but my wife is a big fan and tends to want to watch all of them - either in the theater or as soon as they hit Blu-Ray and DVD. As a result, I end up watching a lot of Disney movies, even if it is when they drop on DVD. In the case of Zootopia, rather than go too far into my own thoughts on the subject, because I encountered an interpretation of the film that truly hits the nail on the head, it behooves me to reference that instead of desperately trying to rephrase my shared thoughts on the film.

The interpretation of Zootopia that anyone reading reviews of the film ought to see is the "Honest Trailer" for the film. For those unfamiliar with them, "Honest Trailers" are videos produced by Screen Junkies and are humorous clips of a movie that rework the trailer as if the Truth In Advertising Laws applied to the film industry. As a result, Screen Junkies tends to strip away the hype that accompanies trailers - which tend to be loaded with the film's high points and elements that obscure the actual plot and character balance - and replace it with a substantive presentation of what the film is actually about. The "Honest Trailer" for Zootopia absolutely nails the true nature of the movie. In fact, Screen Junkies, in making humor and truth, exposes Zootopia for what it truly is: an animated film that attempts to explore racism and instead becomes something that is terribly racist in itself.

Zootopia is a classic fable - a story using animal characters intended to reveal deeper truths about people. Set in a fictional city called Zootopia, Zootopia features animal characters who live in peace and harmony, despite the fact that the city and its suburbs includes both predators and prey animals. Zootopia uses the diversity of animals in its setting to explore racial stereotypes and it is supposed to teach the viewer that racism is wrong. Unfortunately, Zootopia manages to simply reinforce racist stereotypes for the vast majority of the film. In a world where a young rabbit worries about running afoul of a fox out of ingrained fear that was passed down to her by her parents, that rabbit discovers that the first fox she meets is, in fact, a con man. Despite how they drive, the sloths are slow, the weasels are thieves, the desk sergeant at the police department is a fat, donut-eating glutton, and the polar bears are thugs for the mob, for example. While Zootopia never becomes nearly as offensive as Shark Tale (reviewed here!), it still falls drastically shy of actually confronting and combating racism.

Judy Hopps is a rabbit from Bunny Burrow who takes part in the Mammal Inclusion Initiative to graduate the police academy and get assigned to the animal paradise Zootopia, where predators and prey live together in harmony. Despite her parents' fear of the big city and foxes there who might menace Judy, Hopps heads off to the Zootopia where Chief Bogo assigns her to be a meter maid, as opposed to a beat cop like she was trained to be. Assigned to write 100 tickets a day, she rushes out and gives out 201 tickets before noon before she sees a fox, Nick Wilde. Wilde wants to buy an elephant pop for his son, but the elephant denies him service. Feeling guilty over prejudging Wilde, Hopps buys the fox the frozen dessert before she discovers that he is just running a scam. After parting ways with Wilde, Hopps chases a weasel suspect into Little Rodentia, which earns her the ire of Bogo. Returning to the Zootopia Police Department, she sees Mrs. Otterton trying unsuccessfully to get Bogo to pay attention to her missing person's report for her husband, Emmitt Otterton. Before she can stop him, Hopps volunteers to take the case and help the Ottertons and Bellewether, the deputy mayor, hears her before Bogo can get her off the case.

Chief Bogo challenges Hopps to close the case within 48 hours or quit the police force in disgrace. Looking over a picture of Emmitt Otterton, Hopps realizes that Wilde might be involved in the disappearance and hunts him down. While he is not involved, Hopps deputizes Wilde to help her with the search. The clues take the two to the DMV and then into mob-run Arctic Town. Their search takes them to the limo driver who drove Otterton and discovers that the driver, a jaguar, was attacked by Otterton. The pair makes the discovery right before the jaguar goes savage and attacks them. In the process of following the clues, Judy Hopps uncovers a massive conspiracy in Zootopia.

In many ways, Zootopia is a very typical political conspiracy thriller. The mystery is a medium for jokes about different races - in this case in the form of the various animals of Zootopia - and while it is a generally funny film, it never becomes a caper. Because the plot is a familiar one, the character arcs for Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde are very predictable. The reversals in Zootopia are so obvious, they will only entertain children . . . children too young to understand the allegory of interethnic relationships that acts as a the heavy-handed subtext for the movie.

That said, Zootopia moves right along and looks very good. The animation is very well-rendered both for the character designs and the various settings of Zootopia. Zootopia features decent voice acting. Led by Ginnifer Goodwin as Hopps, Zootopia has an impressive cast. Wilde is played by Jason Bateman in a voice acting role that sounds nothing like his speaking voice or any other character he has played. In fact, Bateman sounds like he is doing an impression of Robert Downey Jr. the entire film. With a supporting cast including J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Nate Torrence, Shakira and Octavia Spencer, Zootopia features performances that are very expressive all-around.

Racism is a complex issue, but when a work wants to confront the issue well, the key is illustrating that stereotypes are inaccurate representations of a group of people. Zootopia does not do that. While it entertains, it falls dramatically shy of being substantive in the way it desperately seeks to attempt relevance.

For other works with Ginnifer Goodwin, please check out my reviews of:
Walk The Line
He's Just Not That Into You
Once Upon A Time - Season 1
Once Upon A Time - Season 2


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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