I think one of the most impressive things about Zootopia is not its animation quality (which is very good) or its storyline (which is certainly worthy of the Disney trademark), but the prescience of the filmmakers to have this film coming out when it does. Animated films take a long time to make, so in reality the filmmaking team led by directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore couldn’t have known just how timely the film’s release would be, but it seems like just the right time.
Zootopia is a world in which anthropomorphic animals have learned to live in harmony—no more predator/prey dichotomy. It is a place where lions and lambs dwell together in peace. (There’s something biblical about that vision.) Yet, there are still vestiges of mistrust especially between rabbits and foxes. It is also a place that claims “Anyone can be anything.” Young bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) takes that to heart. It is her dream to be a police officer. Her parents counsel against the idea. (Mother (Bonnie Hunt): “It’s good to have dreams.” Father (Don Lake): “Just so you don’t believe in them too much.”) Through an affirmative action program, Judy becomes the first rabbit police officer for Zootopia. All the other cops are large, tough animals. Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) doesn’t want a rabbit on the force and assigns her to parking duty. Soon, though she pushes herself into a missing animal investigation. Bogo gives her 48 hours to solve it or resign. She enlists the help of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con-man fox to help her through the seamier side of Zootopian life. Of course, the mistrust that Judy has learned all through her life makes it hard at times to trust Nick.
It is essentially a police/buddy movie. Judy and Nick are both outsiders, but they are very different in temperament. Judy is an optimist who believes she will make the world a better place as a police officer. Even when she is assigned to parking duty, she writes 200 tickets before noon to prove what a good officer she is. Nick is a cynic. He trusts no one because he understands that animal nature is not as rosy as Judy seems to think it is. But as they work together to solve the mystery, the two come to respect each other and will each be willing to sacrifice to save the other.
One of the key themes of Zootopia is diversity. The film features 64 species of mammals from shrews to elephants, including weasels, otters, a yak, sloths, lions, sheep, rhinos, hippos, wolves and many more. Yet although Judy starts off seeing this world as a utopian society, she learns that some prejudices and biases that are hard to overcome. It also shows how some are willing to use those biases and fears to gain power.
This is what makes Zootopia so timely. In a world in which we proclaim #BlackLivesMatter and had an awards season defined by #OscarsSoWhite, this film celebrates a diverse society as an ideal, but also recognizes that such diversity is not easy to maintain. It sees that we often bring prejudices we don’t recognize. It sees that those fears can be exploited by those who would manipulate people for their own advantage. And it sees that if we are going to live together that we must work hard to know and respect one another. The film creates a world in which we can look at the sin of racism and the possibilities of reconciliation in a non-threatening way.
The commitment to diversity is not limited to the story. One of the things I noted when the credits began was the number of people of color who were part of the cast. Others not already mentioned include Olivia Spencer (Mrs. Otterton), Tommy Chong (Yax the Yak), and Shakira (Gazelle, the hottest singer/dancer in Zootopia). Although we don’t see this diversity onscreen, it is impressive that the filmmakers seem to have been intentional in making this a cast that represented that vision they were trying to convey.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures