Sunday, March 27, 2016


Whereas Pixar’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ starts with a fantastic concept – the comet that should have rendered the dinosaurs extinct misses the earth and dinosaurs gradually evolve to develop the power of speech, cognizance of the family unit, and a facility for agricultural self-sustainability – then proceeds to do absolutely sod all with it, Disney’s ‘Zootropolis’ establishes its anthropomorphised civilisation so rigorously in terms of backstory, geography and inventive world-building that its breathless first act is liable to leave you dizzy. 

Basically: we’re in a world where animals talk and have created a recognisably contemporary society based on trade, upward mobility and lifestyle aspirations; a world where predators and prey co-exist peacefully if suspiciously. The lion might not be lying down with the lamb, but it’s odds-on they work in the same office building. In fact, there’s a lion in City Hall – Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) – and he’s ably, if nervously, assisted by a sheep, Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate).

It’s thanks to Lionheart’s Mammal Inclusion Programme that naïve but fiercely determined rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is able to join the Zootropolis Police Department, albeit in the face of cynicism and prejudice. Not that Hopps, for all her talk of inclusiveness, isn’t just a little species-ist herself, particularly when it comes to foxes. It doesn’t help that, first day on the force, she’s played for a sucker by vulpine con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The Mammal Inclusion Programme is a curious wrong note in a script that’s otherwise whipsmart: every animal in the ZPD – indeed, every animal in Zootropolis itself (unless I missed some bird life or reptiles) – is a mammal.

This flub notwithstanding, ‘Zootropolis’ plays its cards perfectly as it settles down from its plot-free but exhaustively immersive transitioning of Hopp from her hick small town roots to the bustling capital city by way of a gruelling training montage at animal police academy, quickly becoming a follow-the-clues procedural Hopp, royally pissing off Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), is given the traditional 48 hours to solve a missing persons case, with the caveat of an unceremonious ejection from the force should she fail. When her first clue brings her back into Wilde’s orbit, she loses no time in turning the tables on him … and this is where the film really starts to get interesting.

Let me reiterate that ‘Zootropolis’ is a Disney film. Its first act is imbued with the kind of gently improving moral messages – everyone’s equal; never give up on your dreams – that you’d expect from the studio. And yet even these themes are tempered by jolts of reality. Hopp’s liberalism is challenged from the outset after an assault by a delinquent fox, while her dreams of making it as a police officer in the big city are oh-so-gently chiselled away at by her ultimately well-meaning parents. “It’s okay to have dreams as long as you don’t believe in them too much,” Hopp’s mother counsels at one point, one of several slaps in the face that ‘Zootropolis’ delivers to traditional Disney aesthetics.

So: Disney but not quite Disney, yeah? Disney with a bit of the stuffing knocked out of it after a backstreet scuffle. Now factor in these narrative developments: (a) having successfully beaten Wilde at his own game (“it’s called a hustle, sweetheart”), Hopp demonstrates no qualms in blackmailing him in order continue her investigation; and (b) with Hopp so new to the ZPD (not to mention unpopular enough with Bogo) that she’s effectively operating without resources, the rule book goes out of the window from the outset; indeed, by the time she encounters Mr Big (Maurice Lamarche), in a scene that’s gratuitously accurate in its lampooning of ‘The Godfather’, the rule book doesn’t just go out the window but straight into the sewer.

Between stoner witnesses, unreliable witnesses and witnesses who get the frighteners put on them in a favour Hopp accepts from Mr Big, our intrepid lupine heroine puts together a case that Rumpole of the Bailey would get thrown out of court with one withering turn of phrase; but this is Zootropolis and her efforts are rewarded … but elevation to the media’s poster bunny for law enforcement comes at a price: fear spreads through the city, old prejudices come to the fore, and Hopp’s nascent friendship with Wilde is severely tested.

‘Zootropolis’ constructs its slow-burn crime thriller narrative from meditations on racism, media manipulation, moral compromise, and the politics of fear. It references not only ‘The Godfather’ but ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’. The overriding theme is that the pursuit of one’s dreams will necessarily entail messy mistakes and some degree of failure. And that animals of different species (i.e. people of different races/cultures) will more often than not treat each other shittily.

This is a Disney film, folks. A Disney film that’s finally decided to quit sugar-coating it.


Samuel Wilson said...

Any idea why it isn't Zootopia where you are? Ironic, slightly, that you make it sound more interesting than most reviews under its American name have.

Neil Fulwood said...

Absolutely no idea why the change of title; it's not like 'Zootopia' is an existing film or book title in the UK. Unless Disney figured us Brits for a bunch of pedants who would moan that 'Zootopia' is a pun on "utopia" whereas the political machinations on display are actually indicative of a dystopia?