“A dream is a wish your heart makes.” —Cinderella, 1950
The Walt Disney Corporation is a company built upon a foundation of wishes and dreams. Be it a wish to find Prince Charming, for adventure, for a genie’s freedom, a chance to be a real boy or to never grow up, Disney has personalized the American Dream since Snow White sang into that well back in 1937. As animator Marc Davis once pointed out, making those dreams come true, turning those wishes into reality, has been consistent ever since: be a good person and be kind to animals.
Those two qualities form the crux of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 55th animated feature film, Zootopia. Inspired in part by the eclectic layout of a Disney theme park, the ethnic zones of a bustling metropolis and a little bit of sci-fi prognostication, Zootopia is an urban paradise for animals from all walks of life. An elevated train connects the worlds together, bringing animals from the suburbs of Bunnyburrow to Tundra Town, Sahara Square or even the Rainforest District. In Zootopia there is a place for everything and everything has a place.
The districts are governed by the mayor’s office, where Mayor Lionheart (voiced by J.K. Simmons) and his assistant, Bellwether (Jenny Slate), legislate what is best for the residents of Zootopia while Zootopia’s police force, ZPD, maintain order in this vast metropolis. It is Judy Hopps’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) dream to become the first bunny to join ZPD. She trains hard, graduates first in her class and makes her way to the big city, where her dreams are challenged in the way that big cities often challenge dreams.
Zootopia moves in a predictable direction: Judy Hopps overcomes adversity, learns something about herself, misjudges others, learns something about others and finally achieves the goal she has been working toward and little extra. But directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore aren’t content to just let Judy’s journey provide the color and texture of Zootopia, and pack their movie with a fantastical world teeming with life, millions of unique stories and endless gags, making Zootopia feel like a fully realized world.
It is this aspect of Zootopia that is most enjoyable. Animation is more than just the act of animating the inanimate, is it also the ability to build from the ground up, finding inventive solutions to unique problems in imaginative ways. In Zootopia — with its several districts and areas — animals serve as representation for humanity, but while race, gender, sexual orientation and class separates humans; the animal kingdom is separated by size in magnificent ways. Leaving the animators to come up with clever ways to figure out how a juice bar vendor could service both a giraffe and a field mouse. How a public transportation system could accommodate hippopotamuses and gazelles. How an armadillo and an orangutan could work side by side. How a bunny and a fox can team up to save the day. Judy Hopps’s amazement as she steps off the train into Zootopia’s bustling core is the audience’s amazement as well, and it doesn’t let up throughout the movie as Judy races through Zootopia’s different districts, trying to solve the case and catch the bad guy.
That race is at a breakneck speed, one with a dazzling array of color and sound engineered to keep children’s attention. The writing team — of which ten receive credit, not to mention Disney’s Story Trust — pepper the script with jokes aplenty, references to other movies and TV shows — some specifically for children, some for adults and many for Disney fans — and many, many allegories to modern-day race relations and the constant issue of bullying. The message is an overt one, and they make sure to hammer it home, but it is not a false one. Considering that we inch closer and closer to a Trump Presidential candidacy on a daily basis, maybe the direct address of xenophobia in children’s films is a good thing. Heck, it might even teach the parents a thing or two.
Directed by: Byron Howard & Rich Moore
Co-director: Jared Bush
Screenplay by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston
Story by: Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon and Dan Fogelman
Produced by: Clark Spencer
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira
Walt Disney Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 108 minutes, Opens March 4, 2016. Now streaming on Disney+.