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March 4, 2016

Disney animation is certainly on a roll lately. Since acquiring Pixar, they’ve been knocking out one hit after another — Wreck-It Ralph, followed by Frozen, followed by Big Hero 6 — while their subsidiary’s productions have generally diminished (Inside Out notwithstanding). And now, with the release of Zootopia, the debate is less over whether or not it’s good, but over just how good it is compared to the rest of the pack.

We start out with Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from the sticks who wants to be a police officer. Undaunted by her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) telling her there’s never been a bunny police officer, she tells them she’ll just have to be the first then. She believes the motto of the big city, Zootopia: “Where Anyone Can Be Anything”.

The city is composed of a dozen different climate regions, serving all sorts of mammals great and small. Evolutionarily long past the “red in tooth and claw” stage, predator and prey animals get along here, and the lion lies down with the lamb. In fact, Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate) is the deputy to mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K. Simmons).

So Judy works hard and makes her way through the academy at the top of her class, finding ways for her skills to compensate for her small stature. She gets her choice posting at the central district, just as an exciting major case about a string of disappearances is on the rise. And so of course her gruff Cape buffalo of a chief (Idris Elba) puts her on parking duty. She’ll just have to work that much harder to prove him wrong.

All of which seems to set up a nice little “follow your dreams” story, complete with a pop anthem courtesy of Shakira. About which, it’s really the weakest part of the movie. And amidst all these more creative animal names, calling the singer Gazelle really feels like they lobbied hard for Adele, but weren’t able to pull it off. Thankfully it’s pretty peripheral and easier to ignore than the song Meghan Trainor contributed to The Peanuts Movie.

But as the plot thickens, it gets more interesting than that. Judy forms an uneasy team with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a slick con fox, and uses his contacts to break the case of the disappearing predators. Not only does this open up the movie to more of a detective vibe — complete with colorful characters from a small-time weasel (Alan Tudyk), to a naturist yak (Tommy Chong), to “Mr. Big” (the premiere Brando-impersonating voice artist Maurice LaMarche) — but it broadens the theme. When Judy and Nick find the predators have “gone savage”, the obvious explanation is that they’ve somehow reverted to their primitive instincts.

Just as obviously, there’s more to it than that. But in the meantime, it raises a whole other host of unfair assumptions. Like, even if some predators are going savage, is it justified to draw conclusions about ones who haven’t? Officer Ben Clawhauser at the front desk may be a cheetah, but the only thing he’s about to devour is a doughnut. These aren’t new prejudices either; they play on long-standing assumptions the animals make about each other, and we get to see how those have shaped lives in ways far more insidious than assuming bunnies aren’t cut out for police work.

It’s true that writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston tread on dangerous ground in identifying the minorities as dangerous, and I can imagine this might not sit well with some viewers. I think they’re careful about it, though; it’s made clear by the end that the assumed connection is false, and that there are outside causes involved — environmental lead, anyone? Besides which, there’s no neat mapping from any animal groups onto those we see in our own multicultural society. Without obvious references, the strongest similarity is that people make assumptions about the abilities and behaviors of groups outside their own.

The most important point for the adults in the room may be the subtlest. We may all have unstated or even unconscious biases about groups of people, but a government can only serve its people if we work to become aware of these biases and not act on them without justification. When politics is taken over by someone seeking to exploit the fears and prejudices of a majority group towards a minority group — as seems to be happening right now in America — we all suffer as a result.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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