I do not know how, but Disney made a fantastic cartoon mystery about gender, race and law enforcement. Oh, wait, I do know. They made it about animals instead of people, they did an amazing job of fantasy world-building, they got all the plot points in place, and they somehow made the theme explicit without—in my opinion—letting it get sickeningly didactic.
Premise: In a world where anthropomorphic mammals live together in harmony regardless of whether they are predators or prey, a bunny from a carrot-farming family becomes the first bunny police officer in the big city. Her victory turns to ashes when she’s merely made a meter-maid and tricked by a fox who’s as sly as a—well, as a fox. Meanwhile, fourteen mammals have disappeared in the city and no one knows why.
Zootopia is another full-on American movie about freedom of choice, but in this case the “be anything you want” message is tempered with uncannily realistic reminders that nobody—and no melting-pot, not even one with a utopian reputation—is perfect and that people will surprise you in both good and bad ways.
SPOILERS BELOW, including a detailed plot summary in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Zootopia
Opening image, setup, and theme:
The movie opens with an elementary school play. The play’s (and the movie’s) protagonist, a bunny named Judy, is effusive about how amazing she thinks the city of Zootopia is, especially compared to nature red in tooth and claw, as represented by a fluttering ribbon and too much spurting ketchup. Predators and prey can be anything they want, and she insists—to her parents’ horror—that she’s going to be a cop. A fox bullies her in the schoolyard and says she’ll never succeed. Then follows a training montage among simulations of the ecosystems represented in Zootopia, and a tearful goodbye to parents, after which she boards a train that takes her through those amazing environments on an eye-poppingly grand scale. Her enthusiasm isn’t much dampened when her unsympathetic supervisor snidely challenges her to write 100 tickets for cars at expired parking meters; she writes 200 before noon. Then, however, she gets conned.
Judy overcomes her prejudice against foxes and buys an elephant-sized ice pop for the adorable, elephant-loving son of a fox who’s being hassled by an elephant shopkeeper and who claims he left his wallet at home. She then finds out the two animals are somewhat ingeniously melting the ice pop to make money selling smaller versions to smaller animals. When she confronts the fox (whose name is, aptly enough for a thief, Nick), she sees that she can’t arrest him because she has no proof of wrongdoing. She returns home dejected, but when she answers a video call from her parents on her Carrot iPhone, she tries to convince them, and herself, that she’s loving her new life.
The next day while issuing tickets, Judy apprehends a weasel who stole some unremarkable but presumably valuable bulbs from a florist, but gets scolded rather than rewarded for her initiative.
Break into Act 2:
However, with the help of the underappreciated assistant mayor (a sheep), Judy manages to get authorization from her boss to investigate the case of a missing otter, but only for 48 hours. Tick, tock.
The photo in the case file indicates that Nick the fox might have intel, so Judy records him talking about undeclared income and blackmails him into helping her.
Promise of the premise:
Nick takes Judy to a naturalist (nudist) club, of which the otter was a member. (Judy’s discomfort and cringing would have made more sense if the animals’ unclothed bodies were exposed to the characters but blocked to the audience—as it is, we see that the animals’ bodies don’t have any private parts, which is just weird.) Judy gets a clue in the form of a license plate number. Then Nick takes Judy to the DMV, where a sloth (eventually) looks up the number. (This is the hilarious scene that was shown as a teaser some time back.) Much time having been wasted, they travel to a locked parking lot, where Judy again tricks Nick into helping her. The two are captured by huge polar bear goons who serve a rich Italian mafia rodent (an arctic shrew) and saved from execution by the don’s daughter, who recognizes Judy as the careful cop from the previous day’s chase. The next clue leads Nick and Judy to the jungle sector of the city.
Nick and Judy find out that the otter had gone crazy before his disappearance. Their informant, after mentioning “Night Howlers”, also goes crazy and reverts to a primitive or savage state. Sure that she is on the right track, Judy manages to trap the savage animal and call for backup.
Bad guys close in:
Judy’s backup arrives, but the crazed informant has disappeared. Judy, sans evidence, is in disgrace, and is asked to resign, but her sly companion reminds everyone that the 48 hours are not up. After Nick tells Judy how he decided to be a crook after being mocked and humiliated when he tried to join the boy scouts, the pair continue the investigation. With help from the assistant mayor and some traffic cameras, they trace the newest missing animal to a grim-looking facility guarded by wolves (who howl at night). When they sneak in, they find all the animals who have so far disappeared; they’re all predators and they’re all savage. The lion mayor is there and apparently already knows that these are the missing mammals. Judy and Nick escape, the missing mammals are recovered, and the mayor is jailed. A press conference is called, and Judy invites Nick to become a cop himself, and be her partner.
All is Lost:
Then Judy makes the mistake of her namesake Judas: she betrays her friend. In front of all the news cameras, she naively insinuates that since the savage animals are all predators, they must have some latent savagery in their DNA, their inescapable biological nature. She thus inadvertently destroys the cohesiveness of the entire city, and alienates her predator friend.
Dark Night of the Soul:
Judy resigns from the police force even as the mayor tries to set her up as a hero, and returns to her family’s carrot farm.
Break into Three:
While manning a roadside farm stall, however, Judy finally gets the missing piece of the puzzle—it’s those unremarkable bulbs. A former classmate, the fox bully, is now a business partner of her parents. As he converses with Judy’s parents, Judy has several epiphanies. One: since this fox is now completely trustworthy, despite having been a bully and despite being a fox, DNA clearly does not by itself determine anyone’s identity. Two: bunnies are capable of becoming savagely violent, as described in an incident recounted by her father. Three: there are flowering plants called Night Howlers that cause savagery when consumed. Judy rushes back to the city where she goes not to the cops but to Nick, to beg for forgiveness and for help closing the case.
Together, Nick and Judy (and the don) make the despicable bulb-thief cum bootlegger (I see what you did there, Disney!) disclose the location of a lab where Night Howler plants are being turned into poison pellets. They try to make off with the lab, which is in a train car, but while they fight some evil sheep, they dramatically crash it and accidentally destroy all the evidence… except one poison pellet gun. On their way to the cops, they encounter the former assistant mayor, now mayor, who is revealed as the evil mastermind. She, a sheep hitherto treated with no respect, has taken matters into her own hands. She explains that she purposely started a panic because she wants prey to seize control of the city, since after all, prey are numerically the majority. Her plot will succeed because she will shoot Nick, who will kill Judy. She shoots Nick. Nick goes crazy and attacks Judy. The scene, which takes place in the natural history museum, echoes the elementary school play at the beginning of the movie, but now the danger is real. Or is it? We soon see that the Night Howler gun has been loaded with blueberries, not poison, and that Nick and Judy are just acting! They have recorded the mayor’s confession, and they turn her in to the cops.
The drugged animals recover, and Judy gives a rousing speech at the next police academy graduation, at which Nick becomes a real cop. The two kick off their partnership when they stop a driver for speeding—and discover that it’s a sloth. Then there’s a dance party.
Other Thoughts on Zootopia
The movie is packed with emotion: optimism, outrage, amusement, horror, shame, and at least one sudden startle make it quite a roller-coaster.
The sheer amount of cleverness displayed in integrating a society of different species is overwhelming: behold a heat pump that makes Tundra Town cold and Sahara Square hot at the same time, for example. The movie is beautiful and ingenious.
The characters are fun. Nobody doesn’t get a kick out of the slo-mo sloths. I loved how the characters ears played a role in their facial expressions. I loved Judy’s parents and the reformed bully. Nick the fox, the thief with the heart of gold, reminds me of the shameless but protective Dodger from Oliver and Company, even though the obvious antecedent is Disney’s Robin Hood. I loved the supervisor cop (gruff yet hip) and the front-desk cop (who both epitomizes and defies stereotypes: he’s a doughnut-loving cop, which makes him a cheetah who can’t run fast). The affable but insensitive mayor and the meek but inwardly steely assistant mayor were both painted well, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether the divisive political figure was meant to represent a specific real-life politician.
That’s where this movie fits into its cultural context: the message of tolerance comes at a time when there have been actual race riots, when we’ve heard serious talk of wall-building and deportation, when there is suspicion, persecution and even killing motivated by differences in race and religion.
Internet Commentary on Zootopia
“People mistake kindness for naivete or stupidity, and [Judy] is a good girl through and through. But she’s not a dumb bunny.”
While the film, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, effectively couches its intended message of diversity and tolerance within a menagerie of entertaining characters and vibrant, candy-colored backdrops, there are startling subtexts that eerily echo Donald Trump’s campaign of fear-mongering.
Zootopia addresses issues but it’s also entertaining:
No movie in recent memory has addressed issues of race, gender, xenophobia, and stereotyping in such a frank and open fashion, all while remaining engaging and comprehensible to young children.
Zootopia is preaching but not preachy:
Zootopia is the best animated kids comedy about prejudice and the roots of police brutality ever made. Granted, that description pretty much only fits Zootopia, but it’s still surprising to see how well the movie pulls it off. Simply put, Zootopia is about what it means to be suspicious of somebody else, simply because of who they are. And by situating that story among animals — who already have natural, antagonistic predator-prey relationships — it can explore that dynamic without feeling preachy.
Fiction for kids doesn’t have to be—should NOT be—bad fiction:
Why is there a school of thought that films made for young audiences are of no consequence; that 80-odd minutes of bug-eyed characters yelling non-sequiturs in colourful landscapes is enough? This defence arises whenever a critical eye is cast upon entertainment for young people and it’s always the same. Just because a young person will watch crap doesn’t mean we should serve it up.
Here I was thinking Zootopia was a very American movie, but it’s making big bucks in China, too.
I didn’t even really notice that there weren’t birds and other kinds of animals: clearly the animals in the city are all mammals, but not all mammals are represented, only those that are clearly predators and prey.
I, um, didn’t pick up on the fact that the Night Howler lab is a Breaking Bad spoof. Oops. Of course it is. The poison pellets are even blue.
I’m tempted to go see it again. I bet there are a ton of jokes I missed!