Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
In 2012, Wreck-it Ralph protagonised a video game villain. In 2013, Frozen happily-ever-aftered via self-sacrifice (as opposed to true love’s kiss). In 2014, Big Hero 6 adorned a fat plushie into an armoured warrior. Since its slew of sexualised princesses and shallow princes (which I unabashedly confess that I was a sucker for), Disney has certainly come a long way from its slanty-eyed Asian (see Mulan (1998)) days.
Zootopia (2016) rides on the coat-tails of Disney’s recent attempts to save itself from feminist ire (though no one really escapes the feminists). Right from the get-go, the female-bunny-lead Judy Hopps harbours ambitions to be the first ever rabbit cop. As one reviewer puts it, “in the world of mainstream animation, it’s unheard of for a female lead’s only love interest to be her job.” Defying the gravity of carrot-farming wisdom (“If you never try anything new, you never fail,” advises Judy’s dad) and graduating from police academy as a valedictorian, Judy’s resilience to try everything to make the world a better place is the titular refrain of gazelle Shakira’s ridiculously catchy theme song. In fact, being pushed over (literally, by childhood bully Gideon Grey) only makes Judy more determined. One can imagine a very different person emerging from the same set of experiences.
Enter in foxy con-artist Nick Wilde. Nick is my favorite character in this movie. He is so suave that after a wrenching betrayal, we find him sipping his drink in shades. “Never let them see that they get to you,” he confides. That is as close and as honest a confession that you will get from Nick. And it is brilliant scriptwriting: in that single line, Nick’s cynical facade cracks to reveal a complex and warm-blooded character, a product of his own traumatic childhood. We love him all the more, when after Judy’s heart-melting apology, it is simply water under the bridge to him.
This mirroring and dysfunctional relationship between Nick and Judy (“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.”) forms the backdrop for Disney’s talking animals to comment about social issues. And what a commentary.
Zootopia’s society has evolved beyond “primitive savage ways”, and a breathtaking tour of the metropolis illustrates how this salad bowl of geneologies “live in harmony”: through zoning and pluralistic infrastructure (though questions like what carnivores eat remain unanaswered). There are six key precints – Sahara Square, Tundratown, Rainforest District, Bunnyburrow, Savanna Central, and Little Rodentia. There are elevated pickups for giraffes, instant dryers for hippotamuses, and travel tubes for hamsters. Everyone belongs; everyone has their own place. Or perhaps, everyone belongs because everyone remains in their own place.
And so in Nick’s early monologue, he sums up his cynical worldview on social mobility:
Tell me if this story sounds real to you. Naive little kid with good grades and big ideas decides, “Hey look at me, I’m gonna move to Zootopia! Where predators and prey live in harmony and sing Kumbaya!” Only to find, whoopsie: we don’t all get along. And that dream of becoming a big city cop: double whoopsie; she’s a meter maid. And whoopsie number three-sy: no one cares about her or her dreams. And soon enough those dreams die and our bunny sinks into an emotional and literal squalor living in a box under a bridge until finally she has no choice but to go back home with that cute fuzzy-wuzzy little tail between her legs to become – you’re from Bunnyburrows, that what you said – so how about a carrot farmer? That sound about right? Careful now, or it won’t just be your dreams getting crushed.
This is not just blind pessimism. Judy really becomes disillusioned and goes back to being a carrot farmer. That is the noir honesty that sets Zootopia apart from Disney’s other HEAs. Rabbits multiply, sloths are slow, hamsters join the ratrace. To a great extent, who we are and where we come from does prescribe what we do.
But of course, Disney cannot avoid a fairy tail. Our perfectly mismatched heroes crack the Missing Mammals case and discover that society’s plague is not the predators’ ferae naturae, but a Class C Botanical, or in a word, drugs (and so the social commentary continues). Judy beats her 48-hour odds and proves that she is more than a “dumb bunny”, and Nick becomes the first ever fox cop (though he avoids his wildean fate precisely by being sly – he replaces the night howler pellets with Bunnyburrow blueberries).
And our mastermind? None other than fluffy Assistant Bellwether. Zootopia‘s primary antagonist completes the film’s take on bullying and labeling: you can let the label define you, you can rise above it, or you can also develop a vengeance-seeking Napoleon complex from it.
This is precisely the film’s shrewd message. Stereotypes exist because the past and the prejudices inevitably lead us to a certain point and predispose us to walk in a certain direction. But other paths lie open to us; we can choose a path less travelled. In the end, prescription is not predestination.