Zootropolis, Disney’s latest offering in the Pixar mould, arrives in time for the Easter holidays burdened by two problems.
Like the intellectually complicated Inside Out, (2015) the adult references, mores, and film riffs will go straight over the heads of any youngster under seven years of age, unless a precocious little snot. Rather than taking the very young to see an animal cartoon where the animals act like humans, (as they do in most Disney cartoons) better to take them to the zoo to see the real thing and learn animal behaviour. There is enough action to keep most youngsters in the seats but the myriad allusions to human attitudes and prejudices will have just as many running up and down the aisles bored to tears.
The second problem is the metaphor: predatory animals will always be themselves, says the cartoon, feral and ready to eat you. Big surprise. But what does that mean in the context of the story where a city has ghetto areas for various species?
Is the cartoon saying, what is it like to be civilised? In which case we answer, what is ‘civilised’? Or is it saying multiculturalism doesn’t work? In which case, the United Kingdom’s right-wing political parties will adore the film.
In Zootropolis the animals wear human-type clothes; they walk upright; they exhibit attitudes that align or ironically are at odds with their natural behaviour; they hold jobs, human jobs, policemen, shop keepers, business men. They experience angst, fear, self-doubt; they have moral problems; they sing and dance when deliriously happy. They are like us more than they are like animals.
Like contemporary Glasgow, London or Paris, the metropolis of Zootropolis is also a theme park — in this case a land of different climates and topographies where all animals live in peace, if not quite together. There’s a steamy jungle for tropical loving mammals, a snow-bound mountain for tundra loving bears and wolves, specific areas for animals of a certain type, places we humans congregate in tribal groups, Koreans in Korean Town, or Pakistanis in Bradford, Mummers in Somerset, and Scots in Scotland.
‘Ghettos’ is perhaps a misleading term since the animals acclimatised to each area live in peace. There are municipal boroughs called “Little Rodentia” and “Tundratown” that separate mice from polar bears. Nevertheless, just as with human animals, the ones in the cartoon claim cohesion and harmony yet self-segregate.
The film’s message is confused. Is the film saying segregation is inevitable no matter what society does to assist integration – rabbits live in warrens, weasels live among rocks? In Zootropolis the animals appear to respect each other’s instincts. Only when a villain injects a few with a special chemical do they revert to wild type and cause mayhem.
Bunny Judy Hopps, played by Ginnifer Goodwin in great form vocally, raised on vegetable acreages, leaves her claustrophobic, over-protective parents back on the farm and heads for the great big city, a place where you can become anything you want, including a police officer. Passing her tests with physical difficulty, she graduates and is given her first role – a parking warden. Making the best out of disappointment, Judy determines she will be the best ever and book more vehicles in a day than any other warden.
She soon discovers a lost animal gone wild, an otter, one of fourteen missing she believes kidnapped. But why? And where are they? And that’s the essential story and adventure. She is given the obligatory 48 hours to solve the case or her bad tempered, hard-ass lieutenant chief, (Idris Elba) will fire her. He’s embarrassed to have an officer ten times smaller than his normal police team of wildebeest, tigers, and rhinos, and she’s fluffy into the bargain.
We get our noses rubbed in the analogies for sexism, racism and bigotry that run rampant in the screenplay. (Screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jared Bush.) They use modified quotations and clichés borrowed from debates on civil rights and diversity. And there’s a good dose of political correctness. Judy insists she’s “not just some token bunny” and explains that only a bunny can call another bunny “cute.” Later, Judy calls Nick her Fox companion, “articulate,” and he compliments her expert patronizing. Nick retorts that he entered a life of petty crime because the “world didn’t expect any better from a sly fox”. That aside, their relationship is believable, and often very witty in its verbal sparring.
The detailing in the cartoon is quite amazing, in perspective and in activity. It keeps the adult mind occupied marvelling at how it’s all done. Animal hair, for example, has moved on leaps and bounds (pun intended) from the computer smudginess of the past to intricate layers moving in the breeze. Intricate and layers can be applied to the many layers we are given visually. And the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny.
The one scene played a lot in trailers and television snippets is set in the DVA, the US equivalent of our DVLA – Driver’s Vehicle and Licencing Agency – where each booth is staffed by a sloth. Judy Hopps is in a desperate hurry to get a plate identified, (car licence number) but the Sloth official does as sloths do, move at a snail’s pace carrying out the smallest of tasks. In fact, a snail moves faster. I found that particular scene side-splitting.
I’ve had to sit in the DVA a few times on car related business, and while staff are generally civil and friendly, they are slow to rigor mortis in getting through the work. It’s a bureaucracy, after all, modelled to slow the pace to a crawl. You daren’t chivvy staff on. You’ll get told to go back to the end of the line and wait a second time. And there’s a lot of folk waiting. Rich or poor, we’re all equal in the DVA.
On one occasion I sat an-hour-and-a-quarter holding ticket 24. The visitor being attended to was Number 7. Snoresville. Nothing to read, I kept my eye on the monitor screen like a hawk. The numbers moved along, 20, 21, 22, 23 – 25! Nooo!
None of the staff believed it had skipped my number. “Don’t you go all snake eyes on me, boy. Them compooters are accident free. You musta bin asleep. Take another ticket and wait your turn!”
Zootopolis has a criminal underground sub-plot, with a Mr Big doing a perfect impression of Marlon Brando doing an impression of a Mafia godfather. That adds a nice touch to make the film very entertaining … for adults.
The problem, as I mentioned at the start of this review, lies in the film’s framing metaphor. Predators, animals that eat meat, predators are predators by nature, so what the hell should we expect them to do?
I’ve only ever seen a killer whale push a terrified seal pup back onto a beach, but I am sure it wasn’t out of pity. It was thinking the seal will be a juicier meal next year, bigger and fatter, and slower on the move.
We humans are predatory animals too, the worst the planet has seen. We’re always out to harm each other, and that is the folly that will end mankind’s domination of this earth. It’s just a pity we lose all the beauty in the process, the poetry, the bird song, and the music of Mozart too, in the final preventable destruction we bring down upon ourselves.
- Star rating: Four stars
- Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
- Starring: Ginnifer Goodman, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba
- Duration: 108 mins (Rated PG)