Zootopia is the most societally important kids' movie of our generation.
That was the opinion bouncing around my head immediately after walking out of Disney Animation's new masterpiece. After giving the film a few more hours' thought- and after a highly educated friend of mine texted me "I could grad school the sh** out of that movie"- the opinion solidified into a fact.
A Disney kids' movie about animals? Societally important? Let me explain, loudly inquisitive reader that I imagine reads my every review. This kids' movie is many things: the story is about a small town rabbit cop that teams up with a big city fox con artist to solve the mystery of a missing otter. The subtext, though, is of a far more essential nature.
The bouncy plot is actually the framing device of a brilliant allegory for understanding and overcoming real world systemic racism. Zootopia's every narrative stroke so clearly paints a picture of systemic racism that the problem's roots and solutions are easily comprehended. In our country and in many parts of the world, that's the bravest message to send to kids right now. And to adults!
Not to stop there: the film is engrossingly paced, perfectly voice acted, consistently laugh out loud funny, and boasts some of the most gorgeous animation that Disney Animation has ever brought a story to life with. So, in addition to its societal substance, it's simply one of the best made movies of the year. At the time of this review, I've seen ten of 2016's movies, and Zootopia is certainly the best of the batch.
The typical three act structure for accessible storytelling is pretty obvious throughout, which is understandable due to Disney Animation's normal target audience. The writer/director team (who were, in different roles, behind recent favorites such as Frozen and Big Hero 6) utilizes each act to the fullest in order to express some truth about stereotyping, racism, or how the two creep into society with sinister subtlety. There's not one wasted minute in Zootopia.
For example: the exposition. I'll use a moment from the beginning of the film so as not to give any of Zootopia's intelligent little touches from later on away. It opens with a stage play at an animal elementary school, starring Judy Hopps, our central bunny. The production explains how animals used to be separated into predators and prey, but once evolution and civilization kicked in (and animals became their cinematic anthropomorphic selves) these differences became imperceptible and all animals now live alongside one another in (zoo)topia.
A scene later, a troubled fox gets stereotyped for being a predator and Judy gets bullied for being prey. To many animals, the imperceptible differences that should foster equality still separate species as enemies. This belief, explicit or dormant, is the groundwork for Zootopia's metaphor for racism- and our real world's blueprint for systemic racism as well.
The dedication to this metaphor is much more unflinching than you might think. The allegory extends to all sorts of implications concerning racism in society. Is there an animal allegory for law enforcement violence against African Americans?
For those who believe we should ban or aggressively screen all Muslim refugees attempting to find safety in America?
For explaining how systemic racism leads to self-fulfilling prophecies in which oppressed minorities unwittingly end up living the lives they're stereotyped as living?
For the long-held theory that the CIA imported drugs and guns to ghetto neighborhoods such as Compton in order to sustain the racial environment that feeds American prisons?
In a surprisingly kid friendly way, Zootopia's clever screenplay finds a way to deal with these issues amongst the animal fun. Every animal pun, every creatively realized realm of the titular city, every hilarious witticism or callback to another cop noir film- all in service of a larger theme that's absolutely necessary for kids to grow up thinking about.
Not to ignore the movie's other successes: as I mentioned before, Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman round out a great cast with stellar voice acting chops. They even out-emote J.K. Simmons and Idris Elba. The animation is artful, vivid, and deserving of your undivided attention.
The only thing holding Zootopia back from perfection is its gratuitous overuse of deus ex machina. That's a filmmaking term for story elements working out too conveniently without proper buildup. Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde's mission should have failed time and time again, but there's always some seemingly insignificant side character or barely mentioned narrative component that helps save the day/solve the mystery/redeem a character just in time. Perhaps the filmmakers were focusing more on the larger goal, but this problem is too frequent to ignore.
All in all, it is truly a fact that Zootopia is the most important kids' movie of our time. It's also crazy entertaining. A combination like that should not be missed in theaters. Disney Animation, count me impressed.