Subtlety is a virtue. Walt Disney Animation Studios hasn’t always gotten this right, but it has gotten it right enough often enough to have earned its place in the world. Put another way, it’s not DreamWorks Animation for a reason. Characters and story first. Parable a distant second -- only a consideration when you’ve got the other elements in good order.
Zootopia, the latest feature from Disney, doesn’t quite master this calculus. The true shame, and really the oddity of it, is that the characters and the story do seem right -- they feel rich and fully realized, and they reside in a world that is the same. They just get drowned out by a message that is delivered far too often and very awkwardly.
This is more or less a buddy-cop flick at its heart, just, you know, with animals instead of people. Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is an unlikely rookie officer trying to solve a string of missing-animal cases in her first few days in the big city (aka Zootopia). A rabbit from the country, she is the first “prey” to complete police academy training. Surrounded by big, burly “predators” on the force, she has everything to prove to her superiors, especially Chief Bogo, her give-me-your-badge-and-gun boss voiced by Idris Elba.
Her unwilling partner is Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, a con-artist fox she is blackmailing for help with her case, who, merely by being a fox, dredges up uncomfortable childhood memories that challenge her mostly unbridled idealism as a newly minted cop. As it turns out, Nick’s predatorial identity brings baggage with it for him as well, and therein lies a tense bond between him and Judy that gives the story its soul.
The predator-prey paradigm is of course a thinly veiled metaphor for … well, for us, right now. Even well in to the second term of the first black president, Americans are still grappling on a fundamental level with our original sin — slavery — and the institutional racism that followed its abolition. The predators and prey in Zootopia are no different. They share their city in apparent harmony, but there is an undercurrent of fragility to that harmony as both groups balance ideals like animal equality with uncomfortable realities like an (almost) all-predator police force.
This cartoon world is certainly broadly relevant, and not just to adults who have watched the events in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere with a combination of sadness and horror. There is much to be said for teaching the whole family about the dangers of prejudice, and this is a film that certainly sets out to say a great deal on the subject. The problem is that it often does so at the expense of, y’know, the characters and the story — the very things that actually make a film’s message most powerful.
There’s simply no balance in Zootopia. You’re either reveling in the tense, comedic partnership of Judy and Nick as they try to solve a labyrinthine mystery — why have 14 predators disappeared across the city? — or you’re sitting through an awkward lecture about the dangers of stereotyping. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to that message, it’s that, even in a kids movie, it’s not one that has to be delivered so pedantically. It’s all a little bit on the, ahem, snout.
Zootopia has some delightful moments. When Judy takes the train in to the city for the first time, listening to a song by Shakira, her eyes lighting up as this lived-in world is revealed to her (and us) for the first time, you get a taste of what makes Disney’s animated features so beloved. The music, which might be thoroughly annoying in another context, matches the richly textured visuals perfectly. Ditto for the bit parts of J.K. Simmons as the mayor of the city and Jenny Slate as his shrinking-violet deputy. The film never fully gets out of its own way, unfortunately, too often following up dazzling scenes with puzzling and wholly unnecessary asides designed to make absolutely sure you’ve got the point.