By: Muneeb Arshid
I think it can very easily be stated that we are in a “Golden Age” of animation, a term that can’t really be applied to any era in animation film’s history. The diversity of the types of animation, to the different styles of storytelling, to the beautiful ways that the upper echelon of animated films are able to tackle societal issues are just some of the ways that this genre of film manages to nearly outdo itself with every new release.
Cue Disney’s Zootopia, the 55th Animated feature from Disney Animation Studios, and arguably one of their best films to date. Zootopia successfully and very timely addresses societal issues such as prejudicial and stereotypical behaviour towards certain groups of animals with parallels being drawn to the real life world. Before we get into the super analytical portion of the review, let’s just recap the plot of the film first.
Zootopia follows the endeavour of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit with ambitions to become the first rabbit police officer in the city of Zootopia. Hopps has to adjust to the new city life of being a rookie/rabbit cop who cannot seem to get on the good side of Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). Hopps is tasked with the menial work of issuing traffic tickets when an encounter with a fox con artist named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) leads to her first major case, one that becomes a serious situation for all of Zootopia. Once again, we have an animation and- more specifically- a Disney animation where the voice cast is remarkably exquisite. Each voice that is used for the different animals seems to be the definitive voice that you would picture and hear in your imagination if those respective animals could actually speak. The highlight was Idris Elba, who voices the Buffalo Police Chief with a mixture of both his brooding accent from Luther and the harsh African tone from Beasts of No Nation. If there ever is an actor who can soothe your soul with their voice and isn’t Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba has to be the man for that job. Seriously, I would permit him to lull me to sleep every night.
The use of anthropomorphic characters is not new for Disney Animation studios as they have become a studio who have embraced using animals in the role of humans, and have done so very well. Director Byron Howard used the 1973 animation of Robin Hood as inspiration, which also used a complete host of anthropomorphic characters. What has set Zootopia apart is that the world has been envisioned as though the animals themselves would’ve created it, and not just have animals in a human-designed world. What this all results in is the animators working magic and creating this world which is conducive to the different types of animals that are living as one in the conglomerate city of Zootopia. It is sectioned off into different environments and habitats which allow each type of animal to live in their optimal habitats but have connected the city throughout, such that it is still possible for all to be able to move about the city and not feel segmented from the rest of the city.
However, far above anything else, Zootopia excellently portrays the society that makes up the city and the different factions and prejudices that exist. The reason why this film works so well is because it has fortunately been released at a time when many minority groups are discriminated against, with many cases of xenophobic attacks occurring around the world on a daily basis. Zootopia covers many of these topics, where the audience is left drawing parallels to the realities that many people have to live with. However, one strength that really sets this film apart is that when portraying cases of xenophobia or sexism in the film, it does so in a way that does not feel preachy or overbearing. There’s a certain “natural” feeling to the way the portrayal of the discrimination occurs that makes it realistic and easier to understand, rather than use the trope of melodrama and go over the top with it.
Ultimately, what has helped the film become much more important is the timing of its release. It comes at a time when the Presidential race in the United States is getting heated to a point that probably has not been seen since the Civil Rights era. The discrimination that is occurring around the world, and more importantly, the increased rates of discrimination against minorities in North America is on display in the film but without that preachy overtone to it, presented in such a way that even the most casual newsgoers would be able to draw some parallels to real-life situations. Zootopia depicts this using the “Predator vs. prey” analogy. Zootopia is a city where predators and prey seemingly live and work together harmoniously. However, the animals classified as “prey” know that once upon a time, predators were not as friendly as they may seem to be. This subsequently props up a major plot point when the city turns into a mass paranoia zone, with harsh discrimination towards the minority predators because of a few instances of animals going “savage”. Remind you of anything? Now, that’s a much more recent occurrence that has popped up in the mainstream media. Another societal issue that the film tackles, and quite blatantly at that, is the issue of sexism. Sexism in the workplace is very well known, be it the issue of inequality in pay, or just the general disregard for a woman’s work ethic based on merit. Zootopia is not afraid to show that Hopps does not get the same treatment, in terms of receiving cases, as the other “guys”. This could also be a nod that she is just a rookie, but when it is perpetuated by Chief Bogo that she is “just a rabbit”, it is made evident that there is a certain sexist behaviour that needs to be overcome.
If you’ve read my previous reviews about animations, be it Kung Fu Panda 3 or The Good Dinosaur or the upcoming review for The Little Prince, you will know that I always like to see how the animation has fared with the different age groups of the audience. Very few animations can be successful using the old formula of pandering to the kids. There needs to be a little something for everyone (Pixar and Studio Ghibli may have had a hand in that). Zootopia does a wonderful job in keeping both halves of the audience entertained and engaged with the film, with the kids enjoying the surface themes of the film while the adults can ponder about the subsurface material being portrayed.
With likable characters, and a very funny script, that is laced with an overshadowing of serious political and societal issues, Zootopia manages to work for all audiences in a way that the subject matter hasn’t been tackled by an animation before. Therefore, Zootopia is not only my favourite film of the year so far, but in doing so, receives a grade of A (9.4/10).