Zootopia (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Zootopia (2016)

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The city of Zootopia is a beacon of progress.  Predators and prey used to live in opposition to one another, but in Zootopia they live side-by-side.  But when predators start reverting back to their aggressive state it threatens the peace of Zootopia.  Byron Howard and Rich Moore direct Zootopia, from a screenplay written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, and stars Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman.

Naturalist clubWatching Zootopia, I'm reminded of television programs I grew up with which ran "very special episodes".  Saved by the Bell ran one about the hazards of drilling for oil and, after the gang's prized duck perished, they banded together to stop any chance of drilling at their school.  Next episode, no one's talking about the oil and cleanup which would have been necessary - the gang dealt with the problem and the problem is no more.  Zootopia uses herbivores and carnivores as stand-ins for the racism, sexism, and classism we're still plagued with.

Despite some noble efforts to move these issues along in a positive direction, Zootopia ends up confirming everyone's suspicions.  Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore end up playing the "everyone is a bit sexist/racist/etc." card with such skill that you have to piece together the visual references and screenplay hints to figure out that Zootopia doesn't stand for tolerance.  What Zootopia stands for is the idea that, within the stereotypes which continue to plague us, there is an element of truth.

To be upfront - I hate this, and I hate that Zootopia pushes this idea that all stereotypes are a touch correct in such a pleasant package.  The reason I don't outright hate Zootopia compared to Howard and Moore's last outing (Wreck-It Ralph) is because of the first-rate visual humor of Zootopia's world.  There's great invention in seeing how the different "humanized" elements of animals which previously competed for resources.  But instead of doubling-down on the excellent visual humor Zootopia goes for social commentary and loses what goodwill it previously gained.

The social aims of Zootopia end up derailing the many entertaining chases.

The social aims of Zootopia end up derailing the many entertaining chases.

The scene which highlights both of these problems was also the first I'd seen of Zootopia when Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) go to the DMV.  It's staffed by sloths and, in a brilliant bit of animation, the perpetually impatient Officer Hopps can't stand still while the affable sloth slowly (he is a sloth, after all) punches in the information she needs.  Nick keeps detouring the sloth and makes the process go slower.  The whole sequence is fantastic, and the alternating closeups of the sloths doing their jobs with the slowly aggravated patrons is great visual storytelling.

But this is a story where the moral is to not judge people by their species.  The sloths are slow, the rabbit is impatient, and the fox is sly.  Each of the characters performs exactly in-line with the stereotypes we've come to associate with their respective species.  Keeping this in mind, judging someone by their species is absolutely correct to a point.  Since Zootopia isn't really interested in the nuance of just what that point is, it makes the various visual metaphors collide in a confusing way.

When Officer Hopps goes through training her experience in the mud is not unlike the story of G.I. Jane, the Ridley Scott film which dealt with the sexism facing the first woman trying to join an elite military unit.  So the visual metaphors alter accordingly, with Officer Hopps facing a violent situation as a child which is akin to sexual assault, then having her worried parents provide her with a taser and anti-fox spray.  But when the story shifts into how the predators may be going savage, which the predators take some issue with, we jump into images which are more in-line with civil rights struggles.  Heck, the way Officer Hopps and Nick meet is because Nick is refused service at an ice cream parlor.

If you put the sloth sequence in a vacuum, like the brilliant trailer did, then it's a great short film all its own. It's when the scene is put in context that problems arise.

If you put the sloth sequence in a vacuum, like the brilliant trailer did, then it's a great short film all its own. It's when the scene is put in context that problems arise.

Then the screenplay, written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, makes matters worse.  Lifting dialogue almost wholesale from Joe Biden's racist statements in 2007 (an irony I enjoy the more you know about Biden's speeches), Officer Hopps refers to Nick as "articulate" and "one of the good ones".  We trade sexism for racism, Officer Hopps turns out to be small-minded in her own way, and off we go.  Now, there's fertile ground here for intersectional concerns, but Zootopia is more interested in proving that everyone's a bit prejudiced against someone.

This might have been worth discussing further if Zootopia wasn't, at its heart, a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? sort of absurd mystery  So as we get deeper into the conspiracy - the length of which makes me wonder what kids will be able to keep up with it - more questions arise with the mixed visual metaphors.  If Zootopia's against sexism, what does that say about the screenwriters decision about the villain, and how that villain manipulates things behind the scenes?  Without giving away too much, the villain plays right into misogynist stereotypes.  The same applies to the predators, who are still much more dangerous than the prey, and pretty much throws the idea of "don't judge people by their race" entirely out the window.

Zootopia's not a bad movie, just a fundamentally misguided one.  When it drops the social awareness angles it's a hoot and a half to watch.  The chase between Officer Hopps and a criminal into the diminutive buildings of the rodent part of town is wonderful, and the little bits of architecture designed to accommodate creatures sized giraffe to chipmunk are great to watch characters move in and out of.   But if the only way I could enjoy Zootopia is to tune out, or accept that kids should be taught that some prejudices are ok, then I can't give it a full endorsement.

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Tail - ZootopiaZootopia (2016)

Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore.
Screenplay written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston.
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman.

Posted by Andrew

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