“Zootopia” isn’t just astoundingly political for a Disney cartoon about a saucer-eyed rabbit called Judy Hopps. It’s astoundingly political for a Hollywood film of any kind. There certainly won’t be anything else in cinemas this year with a more militant yet sophisticated take on race relations in a multi-cultural society, so the fact that “Zootopia” is already a record-breaking box-office hit is something of a miracle.
The film (which, for copyright reasons, has been saddled with the uglier and less resonant title of “Zootropolis” in Europe) is set in a world where humans don’t exist, but the animals all talk, walk on their hind legs, and wear clothes. (Mammals, anyway. I didn’t spot any fish or birds.) Thousands of years ago, predators used to hunt and kill their prey, we learn, but times have changed, and now all species live side by side in the city of Zootopia. This arrangement, of course, has necessitated some ingenious civic planning. In the skyscrapered city centre, giraffe neighbourhoods tower over mice neighbourhoods, and around the edge there are suburbs which recreate the natural habitats of creatures from all over the world: a frozen tundra is next to a steamy rainforest, which is next to a baking desert, and so on. In other words, Zootopia looks an awful lot like a theme park. It also looks like an environmental catastrophe, but maybe the sequel will be about the climate change wrought by maintaining all those extreme temperatures.
In the meantime, the city is where the eager, optimistic Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) plans to work as a police officer. Her parents encourage her to stay home on the carrot farm with her several hundred siblings. No rabbit has ever been in the police force before, they remind her, because the job is clearly more suited to rhinos and buffalos, but Judy won’t be dissuaded. And so, as she rides the train to Zootopia, the film appears to be heading towards a standard Disney message about following your heart and living your dreams. But even in its early scenes there are glimmers of something more complex and provocative. When Judy is bullied by a fox named Gideon, she refuses to blame his vulpine genes. “Gideon was a jerk who happened to be a fox,” she tells her parents. “I know plenty of bunnies who are jerks.” And then when she joins the Zootopia Police Department, she politely reproves a friendly leopard who calls her “cute”. It’s OK for one bunny to call another bunny cute, she explains. But if someone else says it, it’s problematic.
Things get even more politically charged when Judy starts investigating a missing otter case with the help of Nick Wilde, a fox (voiced by Jason Bateman) who seems at first to be the sly trickster of a thousand children’s storybooks. Scene by scene, the wackiness fades away to be replaced by a conspiracy mystery with shades of “Chinatown” via “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Judy finds that some of Zootopia’s citizens have been regressing to primal savagery, but this hasn’t happened to animals of every species. It’s only the “predators” rather than the “prey” that are de-evolving. Could it be that they are inherently more violent and primitive than other animals? Even though Judy never actually utters the words, “I’m no racist, but...”, she does remark that if a dozen animals revert to red-in-tooth-and-claw atavism, and they’re all predators, isn’t it fair to assume...?
It’s daring stuff. Disney has been moving away from its customary conservatism lately, recasting a wicked fairy as a victimised minority in “Maleficent” and revealing a handsome prince to be a treacherous villain in “Frozen”. But the directors of the timely “Zootopia”, Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, are playing a much riskier and sharper game, not only forcing their heroine to admit to her deep-seated prejudices, but also teaching their young audiences how politicians and media organisations use fear to divide communities. There is even a line about the police which sends shivers down the spine: “A good cop is supposed to serve and protect – to help the city,” laments Judy. “I’ve torn it apart.”
Its detractors will accuse “Zootopia” of liberal finger-wagging (or paw-wagging): the film’s voice of reason is a Spanish-speaking gazelle voiced by Shakira. But the screenplay is too nuanced to let anyone off the hook, whether they’re supporters of the elephant or the donkey. Besides, it’s always possible to ignore the politics and enjoy the clever fun the film-makers have with their premise. “Zootopia” isn’t the most hilarious of Disney cartoons, nor does it have the most memorable characters, but it does hit upon the ideal job for sloths, as well as imagining what a nudist colony would be like in a reality where animals cover their fur with clothes. Overall, it’s a delight. But there was one detail that puzzled me. I hope I’m progressive enough to accept that lions might one day lie down with lambs. But what will they eat?
Zootropolis is on general release in the UK