Perfectly Timed Zootopia Holds Mirror Up to Society

Coming from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Zootopia almost needs no introduction. Considering it just broke the March animated opening weekend record at the domestic box office, you’ve probably seen it already.

In the event that you have not seen Zootopia, don’t worry. It’s loosely based on racism and sexism in America, something we’re all familiar with. In fact, the film’s release date is so serendipitously timed that in ten years when I eventually show the film to my own children I’ll stop and think, “was this the film Disney made in response to the Oscar protest?”

Crazily enough, the answer to that eventual thought is no. But, the themes and not-so-subtle allegory for racism, sexism, and every other “-ism” that has defined the 21st century is more endearing than I expected when wrapped in bunny and fox fur.

On its surface, Zootopia (just one syllable off from utopia) is a city where the predators and prey of the animal kingdom have come together to live a peaceful life without killing each other. The city is a beacon of hope, representing the talking animal animated version of America. On her way to Zootopia is Judy Hopps, the first ever bunny cop hired by the Zootopia Police Department, thanks to the city’s affirmative action laws. She’s dreamed of achieving this watershed milestone in the animal kingdom and is proud to begin her career enriching and protecting lives.

This rabbit to riches, chase-your-dreams-and-never-give-up story is predictably deflated when both her job as a cop and the city of Zootopia turn out to be less than her blissfully ignorant expectations. Her new boss, Police Chief Bogo deems her too small and weak compared to the literally rhinoceros-sized police force at his disposal. Rather than assign her one of the many open missing animals cases, Police Chief Bogo dismisses Judy to mere parking duty.

In typical Disney animated fashion, the plot evolves into a hilarious whodunit buddy comedy. However, the story isn’t what sticks in your mind afterward, it’s far too predictable with a few too many repeat jokes. Instead, it’s the allegory of racism, intolerance, and today’s snap-judgment society that gives the audience paws. Sorry – pause. There isn’t a scene that goes by, and I mean that quite literally, where either a sight gag, plot point, or a line of dialogue wasn’t somehow inspired by a stereotype that exists in America today. It’s extremely clever, and mostly played for laughs in acts one and two.

Act three, on the other hand, isn’t as cute and fun. The allegory that you were possibly just reading too much into becomes as unsettlingly palpable and real as a Donald Trump GOP nomination felt following Super Tuesday. I got the chills.

**

Friends, it should be clear to you by now that I enjoyed this film. It’s layered, funny, and a refreshing mirror propped up against an unsuspecting audience of parents seeking an animated baby-sitter. However, I do have one a thought I’d like to entertain with you. As of this writing, Zootopia sits on aggregating critic website Rotten Tomatoes with an impossibly high 99%. Folks, Best Picture winner Spotlight scored lower than that. I bring this to your attention to ask this: are critics scared of giving Zootopia a bad review? The film is solid, but not 99% solid gold. As previously mentioned, the plot is a bit too predictable. And the film’s biggest laughs are either parodies of other great crime films, or repeated so often they lose their knee-slapping urge.  DMV sloths and bikini clad gazelle, I’m talking to you.

In light of 2016 American politics, and specifically where Hollywood currently sits on the diversity barometer, do critics have any choice but to give a film waving a $200M diversity and inclusivity banner five gold stars?

I urge my fellow critics to write and critique objectively. Celebrate a film because it is well-structured, masterfully crafted, and a transporting experience no matter what year it is released.

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