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Tired of 'Zootopia' yet? Too bad.


May 03, 2016

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    I’m touch-and-go on talking animals movies, and equally touch-and-go on CGI. But I’d heard nothing but good things about Disney’s latest CGI talking animal movie, Zootopia, so I decided to check it out for myself. 
    Zootopia is an entertaining animated feature film, but it is also an exercise in social commentary. Much like WALL-E, it’s a heavy-handed, and sometimes clumsy exercise, but also an important one.
    Our protagonist, Judy Hopps, is a precocious rabbit from Bunnyburrow, a small town far enough away from Zootopia that she’s never even seen it. When she becomes the very first bunny police officer, despite years of being told it was impossible, she heads to the metropolis to join the force. 
    Zootopia itself is a triumph of CGI and imagination. We’re introduced to the city as Judy is: hurtling toward the sunset-hued skyline by train, visible through the ceiling's observatory glass. 
    Zootopia’s creators have imagined a city that adapts to its inhabitants’ climate and practical needs. There are train stops at Savanna Central, Sahara Square, Rainforest District and Tundra Town, encased in snow and ice. Once, we follow Officer Judy Hopps into Little Rodentia, where the buildings can be tipped like dominoes, if larger visitors aren’t careful. 
    These neighborhoods are amusing because they remind us of the quartering off of our own cities. From Little Italy to China Town, from Philadelphia’s Little Cambodia to the East and West Villages of New York and the yuppified Mid-town of just about anywhere, we, too, divide ourselves, carving out intentional spaces and communities among the broader, more diverse swathe. 
    As is also true of our cities, the streets of Zootopia are teeming with a population so diverse it seems impossible: predators and prey now live side-by-side without conflict; the food chain has been so thoroughly tamed that it is seen as primitive. Giraffes and gerbils and lions ride the same trains, use the same elevators and share the same sidewalks. 
    But while the diversity of Zootopia is magical and fascinating for us and for Judy, it has another thing in common with the human metropolis: these different creatures coexist peacefully, but they hardly interact with one another. When and if they do, they come armed with erroneous preconceived notions that stand in the way of true understanding.  
    In Zootopia, Judy continues to encounter bunny prejudice, despite having graduated at the top of her police academy class. She is assigned parking duty while the other officers — all larger, seasoned animals, and, while it is never mentioned, mostly male — go out in search of a dozen or so missing mammals from all over the city. 
    On her first day of parking duty, Judy follows a fox name Nick Wilde through the city, catching up to him as he stands in line at an elephant ice cream shop. Judy watches as Wilde is gruffly turned away by the elephant shopkeeper, who asks why he can’t patronize a fox establishment. A sign on the counter reads, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
    Encountering such blatant prejudice causes Judy, who actually carries fox repellent in her police holster, to reconsider her judgment. If the animal groupthink casts rabbits as dumb and docile, thereby disregarding them, it casts foxes as “savage and shifty,” vilifying them. 
    We soon learn that Wilde is, in fact, a crook, and has been one most of his life. The rest of the film repeatedly questions his virtue and the mettle of his, for lack of a better word, humanity. “If the world is only going to see a fox as savage and shifty,” he says of his life of crime, “there’s no point in trying to be anything else.”
    But through a series of curious events, Officer Judy Hopp and Nick Wilde form an unlikely cop-crook crime fighting team. Together, they solve the case of the missing mammals, but not before Judy, herself, doubts her fox friend’s integrity — and the integrity of all natural predators — on camera in front of all of Zootopia, claiming that biology makes them savage.  
    When confronted by Wilde, Judy is confused and assures him that he’s not “like them.”
    Wilde’s response, “Oh, so there’s a them now?” made my stomach sink. 
    It wasn’t difficult for me, personally, to make the leap from cartoon social order to present-day prejudice of all stripes, including sexism and racial profiling. It was cringe-worthy, but important to see likeable, well-meaning characters make blunders, as condemning prejudice does not make one immune to it. 
    I imagine that children seeing this movie will gain something new each time they watch it, growing into the awareness Zootopia assumes of its audience. I only hope those who most need to absorb its message will be open to receiving it; that they will some day see past the puma, or the otter, to their neighbor

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