by Nicole Doyle (17A01A), Catherine Zou (17A01B), Joan Ang (17A01B) and Yang Siqi (17A01C)
This article may contain spoilers! If you have not watched the film, do be aware of this.
If there was ever a checklist for “How to make a Disney Movie”, Zootopia has it down pat – from its intricate, unique animation to its anthropomorphic premise. However, it subverts the impression of being another product fresh-off the Disney movie pipeline by tackling the complex issue of stereotyping, while grounding itself in solid writing and design.
In a world where humans never existed, mammals have evolved to coexist in a modern, peaceful city-state in the eponymous Zootopia. This is not, however, without its own politics — namely the tension between predator and prey. In the movie, the idealistic rabbit officer Judy Hopps winds up investigating a missing-mammals case with sly, reluctant con-fox Nick Wilde, which unravels an unexpected conspiracy.
Design — Sound, Art and Animation
The first thing you’ll notice about any animated movie is its art, which connects the audience to the story-world. Disney manages this masterfully, from vast and detailed landscapes of different habitats in Zootopia, to minor features contributing to the film’s atmosphere. It even consulted famed car designer J Mays on designs for cars that would suit each animal, showing the incredible attention to detail that went into each aspect of the film.
Of course, the characters of this film just come to life, thanks to Disney’s new fur animation technology that grooms every individual strand of fur on the characters. Zootopia also delights with its expressive cast of characters — whether comedy or tragedy, Zootopia’s animation is real and engaging, enhancing the storytelling to the point where half of the story is told merely through the characters’ facial expressions.
Despite Disney’s recent notoriety for its endless musical numbers, Zootopia uses one main theme — Try Everything by Shakira, starring as the city’s pop culture icon, Gazelle. Here, Disney gives us a perky song that carries the main message of the film– trying, well, everything, despite obstacles that manifest in people’s prejudice. It seems like they’ve learnt from wasting musical numbers on throwaway plot devices. (Looking at you, trolls from Frozen.)
Overall, this reviewer felt that Disney fleshed out its design for Zootopia splendidly despite some minor gripes with Judy’s occasionally jarring violet irises. Otherwise, with a vast world created through its solid art and music, it is little wonder that Zootopia has reeled in the hearts of children and led them through its captivating tale.
Writing — Plot and Characters
It is fascinating how the overwhelming complexity and realism of the characters are what truly brings new life to this well-worn story. Its characters are flawed: Judy’s initial naivety, Nick’s cynicism and the natural inclination they share towards craftiness being prime examples.
What is most interesting is that every character in the story relevant to the movie undergoes character development. While Judy starts off naive and unconsciously bigoted, she realises this and makes amends after offending Nick, becoming more level-headed whilst still adhering to her ideals the whole way. This is complemented by Nick’s character, who changes from an idealistic child into a cynic, and then regains his original hopes and dreams.
Another wonderful thing about Zootopia’s characters is their character dynamics. As the movie’s characters develop and grow, so do their interactions. The two main characters evolved organically from hating each other, to becoming partners-in-crime [or law, as the case may be] without feeling rushed. This is a happy result of well-paced writing, and a lack of overt, forced romantic relationships. This is a rarity for a Disney movie, and makes Zootopia stand out even more.
Plot-wise, Zootopia also excels in its ‘neo-noir’ genre, which respins classic noir plot themes and plot devices with fresh takes on plot twists and a new, interesting setting for the story. It is familiar enough to be relatable, but also new enough to keep the story interesting with largely airtight writing, although this reviewer does take minor issue with the convenient reveal of the details that catalyses Judy’s return to the city.
Zootopia has set a pretty high bar for writing, which brings together the rest of the film to crystallise its message of equality. Its quality of writing shows just how much the writers care about the things that they’re doing, and the answer is clear: it’s a lot.
Though targeted at children, Zootopia’s themes are relatable to those of all ages. The movie is able to play straight, subvert and avert tropes typical of animated movies without coming off as contrived. It conveys a unique and heartfelt message relating to real issues of prejudice and discrimination through its two main characters.
Perhaps the clearest parallel to Zootopia’s interspecies divisions is the issue of racial discrimination. Predator-prey tension in Zootopia alludes to racial antipathies underlying many modern societies. Whilst the hatred and instinctive slaughter of old have receded, different degrees of discrimination remain prevalent. Discrimination is clearly nuanced – ranging from subconscious microaggression to large-scale anti-species/race speeches.
The dimensions of discrimination is further textured with the politics of gender relations. An added element to Judy’s bravery is her subversion of “female” roles in entering the police force, a traditionally male-dominated career. Furthermore, that both she and Assistant Mayor Bellwether, also female, are initially sidelined in their careers adds another layer to the commentary on discrimination. It also illustrates the response of those discriminated against – and their own behaviour when they come into a position of power.
Whilst these are issues that parallel our society, the movie is not merely a reproduction of human society or an extended commentary on these topics. It instead addresses certain societal manifestations of discrimination. On the whole, Zootopia uses a lighthearted story to highlight and bring understanding to the often nebulous concept of prejudice, while its anthropomorphic characters are interesting as reflections of human nature and conflicts. This is fully utilised to resonate across audiences of different cultures and realities.
Judy, the protagonist, aspires to become a police officer, an impossible dream for a bunny that even her parents failed to take seriously. Yet despite their dissuasions — Judy perseveres, surmounting challenges to eventually place first in the police qualification test. Her struggles resonate with the audience in portraying the obstacles in doing something doing something against the mainstream. Though it would’ve been easy for Judy to stay in the carrot farm like her parents, she wouldn’t have been happy. And here the movie shows the audience that young or old, child or adult, everyone can pursue their own dreams, to carve out a life that to them was worth living. Judy represents this courage and perseverance against societal barriers of prejudice and stereotypes.
Nick, on the other hand, epitomizes the defeated state of one who has given up fighting prejudice. His scams and deviousness are attributed to the abuse he suffered from stereotypes of his identity as a fox. Having ‘tried and failed’ to overcome societal challenges, he simply becomes a swindler, becoming the creature that he is expected to be. However, Nick’s eventual success teaches us the importance of second chances – to transcend the limits of stereotypes and prejudice, to be seen as a worthy individual.
These character arcs poignantly interweave with the story’s theme of self-initiated change, where differences start with a change in one’s own perceptions and actions against whatever society imposes.
Overall, Zootopia, with the distinctive chemistry between the two main characters, the beautiful plot and its well-intentioned messages as well as the delightful, state-of-the-art animations all serve to bring about an enjoyable movie experience for children and their parents alike, balancing just the right amount of wit and humour with the important life lessons it brings across.
Somewhere between its utilisation of classic tropes and its explorations of social issues, Zootopia managed to captivate its audience in a way that was not only heartwarming, but also thoughtful, unique and relatable. “Life’s a bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.” Just like the featured animals of Zootopia, we can make a difference too.