Walt Disney Animation Studios, in the decade from 1989 to 1999, produced some of the Western world’s most cherished and culturally significant films: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tarzan. Not only were these films artistic masterpieces, but they in many ways captured the zeitgeist of their era – the “Disney Renaissance”.
Following a tumultuous transition to computer animation, since the release of Tangled in 2010, we are currently amidst Disney’s triumphant return to form as an animation studio peerless in its technical animation and narrative prowess. Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and now Zootopia, all demonstrate the studio’s remarkable ability to combine spectacular visual pieces of art with storytelling that both inform and are informed by the cultural dialogue of the time.
Frozen proved to be a cultural phenomenon for this reason, and deservedly so. Yet with Zootopia, Disney has surpassed anything it has previously produced during this new post-Tangled “Golden Era” – its computer animation has never been so breathtaking, its writing has never been so on point, and its messaging has never been so timely.
In terms of its artistic wizardry, Zootopia surpasses the high bars set by Disney’s previous work Big Hero 6 and Dreamworks’s How to Train Your Dragon 2. The environments are rendered with such sumptuous detail and inspired creativity that, counter-intuitively, one almost forgets you’re watching a computer animated film. The movie does not strive towards photo-realism – the aesthetic is definitely stylized – and yet many scenes exude so much detail that they almost become photo realistic. The introductory tour through the city of Zootopia, as the camera speeds through its various biomes, is a marvel of animation and world-building. Combined with the smart and often surprisingly mature dialogue, Zootopia very may well be a brilliant live-action cop mystery/drama.
The dynamic detective duo of Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde serves as the narrative anchor and emotional core of the film. Voiced perfectly by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman respectively, the chemistry between the two supplies their friendly relationship with much of its emotional weight and attractiveness. Dialogue throughout the film is clever and often uproariously funny, easily sustaining interest in the movie’s story.
On these grounds alone, Zootopia would be an excellent entry into Disney’s repertoire. The film’s underlying message, however, propels it to even greater heights. Animated movies are no strangers to anthropomorphic animals, but Zootopia leverages this device to its full potential and asks the viewer to consider important questions about race relations, prejudice, and stereotyping without his or her real world preconceptions and associated baggage. Released in the first quarter of 2016, this discussion could not be more important given given the politics and current affairs of both the United States and Europe.
The easy course for this discussion would have been to follow the struggles of a minority group within Zootopia’s inhabitants, which then would map onto a real world disadvantaged group and the challenges they face. In a real show of ingenuity in creative writing, Zootopia avoids this simplistic path completely. There is no clear-cut oppressor and oppressed, no abuser and victim, no privileged and disadvantaged. Instead, the movie wants us to think about the core challenges presented by prejudice and discrimination on their own terms within a world where, much like ours, such distinctions between groups often can be highly fluid and contextual.
The predators of Zootopia struggle to escape their prehistorical roots as the oppressing class of species in a universe where the animal kingdom has biologically evolved far beyond this – appeals to “biology” in favour of the dominance of predators are just as flawed as their real-world racial parallels. Yet simultaneously, predators are also a minority within Zootopia, and are shown to be equally capable of being the victims of prejudice, stereotyping, media sensationalism, and dog-whistle politics. Zootopia shows just how complex, messy, and intractable these conflicts are. Things simply cannot be distilled down to, “Here’s the dominant group, here’s the group that they’re discriminating against. Look how awful it is…”
With this sharp commentary, Zootopia is the product of Disney firing on all cylinders. If there was still doubt as to whether we indeed are in the midst of a resurgent Golden Era for the studio, this film firmly quashes it.