‘Zootopia’ review – A neo-noir social allegory for the times

A place where beings of different natures and ethnicities have evolved beyond violence and animal instincts on the surface, to coexist with irrational animosity working itself into every action. This describes both our world, and Zootopia, the utopian city where mammals of all species first joined hands in co-operation, and which proclaims with pride that ‘anyone can be anything’. So it isn’t really a surprise when the idealistic Lt. Judy Hopps finds herself out of her depth in the metropolis, yet met with as much speciesism as back in her hometown of Bunny Burrows, if only not more. Disney’s Zootopia, helmed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, is a success in modern animation and world-building, filled with rich and relatable characters. On the surface, it is an entertaining and extremely hilarious neo-noir buddy cop tale, while just beneath lies a socio-political commentary which tackles the pertinent societal problems of today within fictional political situations that hit too close to home, employing the effective narrative allegory that George Orwell pioneered in Animal Farm.

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Zootopia introduces us to a world full of animals that talk like humans, dress like humans, go to work like humans, and, more than anything, interact with repressed motives and emotions like humans. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an ambitious little bunny who moves to the metropolis to realise her lifelong dream of being the first bunny cop, only to the ridicule of everyone she meets. Under the constant teasing from her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) and the snide sarcasm of the conman Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), she navigates the social structure and the residents of Zootopia, who do not exist in the same musical and holding-hands harmony that she had dreamed of. When the family-man and florist Mr. Otterton is reported as missing, and the average-joe residents of the metropolis start behaving strangely, Judy sees a mystery waiting to be solved. Teaming up with Nick and working against all odds and expectations, the rest of the film is her pursuing the trail and the events that follow her actions.

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A deceptively simple film, this latest original work from Disney reveals layers upon layers beneath every word and action of its characters, once you start scratching the surface. Painting a serious allegory and attempting to address difficult questions through light-hearted dialogue and situational comedy, it utilizes the inherent characteristics of its animal characters to discuss coexistence among people of diverse inclinations and coming from distinctly different backgrounds. While Zootopia may not satisfy its audience with an effective solution or even the right answers to addressing the issues drawn out, it still manages to deliver critically sharp, effective commentary on the present state of affairs. A strong satire of this world of wrong assumptions and sweeping generalizations, of two-faced politicians and the social discrimination that stems from all the above, the film turns up increasingly subtle analogies with every watch. However, it does end up reducing the very nuanced and vexing problems it addresses to a tangible villain that the protagonists can apprehend, to neatly tie up the narrative without having to confront the far darker reality. And it is in this compromise, where the superficial narrative overwhelms the allegory, rendering it inconsistent, that Zootopia fails to do justice to its intelligent commentary, and falls back to clichéd storytelling. The world we leave at the end of the film appears to be closer to the musical harmony that Judy dreamed of at the start, but in reality, not much has changed – the stereotypes have not been debunked, rather tolerated, and the animosity of diversity is not alleviated, but restrained even further beneath outward interactions.

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It may seem that I expected more than I should have, from what is otherwise an extremely hilarious and entertaining film, but these expectations were only a result of the brilliant job the film does otherwise in the nuances of its satire and execution of its deeper messages. This genius of Zootopia owes itself heavily to the incredibly layered yet quirky screenplay by Jared Bush, shining as a beacon in this era of shoddy writing that weighs down even the simplest of concepts in narrative. Effortlessly light-hearted and fast-paced, while maintaining cleverness at every step, the sheer originality of the writing gives rise to some of the most comedic situations and lines, without having to resort to unnecessary vulgarity. Delivering these cleverly written lines are the talented voices of Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin, who form an endearing duo that complements each other in their differences in attitude, without resorting to the romance that is inevitable in such unlikely partners. Accompanying them are the well-known voices of Idris Elba and J K Simmons – spreading their comedic wings, resulting in incredibly comical character work – and a lively soundtrack that is with the times, giving us also a cameo by Shakira as the pop-star Gazelle (a gazelle, if that wasn’t obvious). Sure, the climax and its implications did not see justice done to its masterful socio-political allegory, but when it works, Zootopia really hits the spot.

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Following the success of Inside Out and Big Hero 6, this animated film about an animal society paralleling our own continues Disney’s revival in original stories with substantial depth beneath the immaculate cartoonish animation. Though working off an allegory for human society already tried and tested in Cars – perhaps the most disappointing theatrical Disney project to date – Zootopia manages not only to improve, but also, taking a cue from George Orwell, employ far more appropriately, the technique of showing a mirror to human society through the absurd behaviour of the non-human characters on screen. A film that maintains enjoyment in both the buddy-copy, neo-noir exterior and the metaphorical undertones inside, it deserves multiple viewings to take in the intricate details the filmmakers have cleverly inserted. Filled to the brim with situational comedic sketches and fast-paced humour, in keeping with the times, Zootopia is something every kid will laugh at heartily today, and contemplate on its deeper meanings, on re-watching it later on in life.

Rating: 8/10

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One thought on “‘Zootopia’ review – A neo-noir social allegory for the times

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2016 in Film – Dreamers, witches and nice guys. | DavidandStan Movies

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