Welcome to the Jungle
My first thought after finishing Zootopia was that I had just seen an adult-oriented film masquerading as a children’s movie, and I mean that as a compliment. For all its visual resemblances to the likes of Rio, Madagascar, and Ice Age—which, though not lacking in appeal for older viewers, primarily target younger crowds—this animated flick takes groovy detours into intelligent, screwball dialogue and film noir intrigue. In pursuit of the latter, the film peppers its screenplay with clever references to everything from The Godfather to Breaking Bad, except Zootopia is also genuinely engrossing in its own right, with moments of legitimate horror and heartbreak.
And yet the film is not NOT for kids, because if that had been the case, the filmmakers wouldn’t have gone out of their way to make their film so marketable to the children/tween demographic. A Disney animated feature starring anthropomorphic animals? Of course kids are gonna come in herds. The genius of Zootopia (in addition to all that was mentioned in the prior paragraph) lies in the way it exploits this demand by assuming the likeness of another Ice Age only to spring something radical from beneath the familiar exterior: a crash course on race relations in America, aimed at kids who have not yet experienced the hate and violence that populate today’s headlines.
Through foregrounding the tension between carnivores and herbivores within the metropolis of its title, Zootopia unfolds an allegory of racism alongside the central detective story. In place of the usual heartwarming themes like love, friendship, teamwork, and family, the film teaches that, at least around issues of race, the world is broken, and that a response of self-examination and open-mindedness is necessary for any semblance of harmony to occur. Moreover, by taking the form of generic, animated mass entertainment, Zootopia ensures that its message reaches its desired audience.
Given that this message is intended for children (though many adults would probably benefit from a reminder), some simplification of real-world race relations is inevitable, but overall, Zootopia digs surprisingly deep into the complexities of the issue. At one point, the film conjures America’s ugly racist past, evoking in the image of a muzzled fox the iron muzzles black slaves were forced to wear during the antebellum era. At another point, the film takes a jab at race inequality in the workplace by having protagonist Judy Hopp insist that she is not a “token bunny,” with the phrase suggesting that she was recruited by the Zootopia Police Department simply in order to appease her fellow, small-bodied animals who are collectively underrepresented in the organization.
All this is to say, Zootopia is something special. It is a film that is both specifically for adults and specifically for kids. In reaching both audiences, the film succeeds in spades, on the one hand mixing film noir and screwball to create a genuinely riveting yet hilarious crime adventure, on the other introducing the existence of racism to children with a clarity and depth rarely seen in other animated films of Zootopia‘s stylistic ilk.
See this one. It’s pretty darned good.