It’s pretty easy for a casual film-goer to confuse Walt Disney Animation Studios for the raft of similar-looking animation houses, or to see it as vanilla offerings next to a slate of Marvels, Pixars, Star Wars and live-action remakes. This obscures the reality that the Mouse House’s “canon” arm is well into a historical period, starting with 2008’s Bolt, that rivals the 90s Renaissance for its success and flamboyant idiosyncrasy. It’s referred to as the Disney Revival by people old enough to nostalgify the likes of Aladdin, and they seem to be working there now, because what sets these snappy computer-animated romps apart1 is a desire to evolve past simple fantasies for something truer to the fraught world outside. Villains aren’t obvious,2 songs aren’t always sung and True Love is either earned with struggle or imagined by a naive mind. That same pursuit of modernity has resulted in some magnificent contradictions that threaten to pull the stories apart, and it’s in the slipshod allegory of Zootopia that the seams finally burst.
On paper, the studio’s 55th feature reads like a Walt buff’s dream: a cast of anthropomorphic animals, set in a gleaming city that hybridises urban infrastructure and natural ecosystems, as though we were watching the globalised descendants of Robin Hood. The instant Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin as a bunny) steps off a sun-kissed train to join the Zootopia Police Department, we are thrust on the wings of a soaring camera and Sia-penned pop song into a veritable theme park of a city, comprised of neatly coded districts like Tundra Town and Sahara Square. Beyond Hopps’ grotty apartment, there’s not even an Oliver and Company level of background scuff and squalour; even a back alley looks like Main Street USA. This would be plenty appealing if not for its denizens insisting that it’s right under her twitching nose, be it her antelope neighbours causing a ruckus in the next unit over or her short-fused chief (Idris Elba as a water buffalo) who burdens her with a 48-hour kidnapping investigation for chafing at her meter maid duties. Chief of the naysayers is a con artist (Jason Bateman as a fox) who is all too happy to deflate Hopps’ balloon while she strongarms him into tracking down the culprit. As the Lasseter precepts dictate, however, there’s more to his embitterment than his voice actor’s dripping sarcasm, and it’s here that Zootopia, like its protagonist, walks blissfully into a jungle of discourse it has precious little chance of surviving.
The film hinges on the divide between prey and predator, not just in the crime conspiracy that Hopps and Wilde uncover but the obstacles they overcome in their arcs toward the land of Dreams Do Come True. Both are frequently patronised or stink-eyed for their respective diminutive and slippery qualities, and it’s written as an explicit parallel to real-world race relations. To link cultural identities to zoological taxonomy is already a shaky proposition, but to its credit the script — officially a five-way effort that includes directing trio Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, though several more have surely given input in the sweat box — takes care to put the character’s prejudicial ducks in a row (figuratively) in a prologue where child-Judy performs in a school play on the subject. Things get messy fast when it skips to modern day and remembers why the premise was so appealing to begin with. It starts exploiting the “natural” quirks of different animal species for laughs, sometimes innocently (the cute, slightly creepy Sloth DMV sequence all over the trailers) but eventually through hoary ethnic stereotypes, like tracksuit-wearing Russki polar bears, their Godfather-mimicking mouse-Don, and Alan Tudyk’s Italian-American weasel in a grubby tank top.3 The result is a hollow and predictable second-act rift, as drilled home by the usual array of Pavlovian slow zooms, glum montages and sad faces, that dangles character logic on the thin branch of Easily-Solved Misunderstandings and engages in Dope-level gotcha posturing. Worse is the ending, which gallingly asserts “change starts with you” and literally dances away from how hollow and embarrassing the sentiment is to a real victim of systemic discrimination. The fact that there’s a meta joke made of Tudyk’s character selling bootleg Disney films, one of many criminal trades that racial profiling plays no small role in propagating, says it all.
Of course, the Mouse House’s grasp-exceeding reach is well proven by now. Asserting that they traffic in naive fantasy is like saying Baskin & Robbins cashes in on gluttony, but in trying to be true both to messy, complicated life and the Nine Old Men‘s storytelling shorthands, these Revival features incubate their own hypocrisies. It’s okay to embrace your bad self, soothes Wreck-It Ralph, but do right by your pals while you’re at it. Romantic love isn’t the be-all and end-all, announces Frozen, but you totally deserve a boyfriend for figuring that out.4 The study of science is a great aspiration, declares Big Hero 6, provided the take-home quiz is a wicked-cool fight straight out of an actual comic book. What saves the day in those is the undeniable artistry that the studio cultivates, and there’s plenty to spare in isolated aspects of Zootopia: the cast is gangbusters (also including Nate Torrence, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer), the sets are designed with startling detail, every character in them is animated with beautifully comedic naturalism, and composer Michael Giacchino comes out swinging with heist and chase accompaniments for days.5 Such qualities have had an absolving effect in previous installments, but it withers this time in the face of ignorance to the same issues the movie is so keen to build itself around. Maybe stick with the fairy-tales, guys.
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