Film Review: Zootopia / Zootropolis (2016)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

 

Cast
Jason Bateman – Nick Wilde
Kristen Bell – Priscilla
Jared Bush – Pronk Oryx-Antlerson
Tommy Chong – Yax
Jesse Corti – Mr. Manchas
Josh Dallas – Frantic Pig (what a fun credit)
John DiMaggio – Jerry Jumbeaux Jr.
Idris Elba – Chief Bogo
Fuschia! – Drill Sergeant Major Friedkin
Ginnifer Goodwin – Judy Hopps
Byron Howard – Bucky Oryx-Antlerson
Bonnie Hunt – Bonnie Hopps
Phil Johnston – Gideon Grey
Don Lake – Stu Hopps
Maurice LaMarche – Mr. Big
Leah Latham – Fru Fru
John Lavelle – Mouse Foreman
Tommy “Tiny” Lister – Finnick
Katie Lowes – Dr. Madge Honey Badger
Raymond S. Persi – Flash
Peter Mansbridge – Peter Moosebridge
Rich Moore – Doug
Gita Reddy – Nangi
Della Saba – Young Judy
Shakira – Gazelle
J. K. Simmons – Mayor Lionheart
Jenny Slate – Bellwether
Octavia Spencer – Mrs. Otterton
Mark “Rhino” Smith – Officer McHorn
Kath Soucie – Young Nick
Nate Torrence – Clawhauser
Josie Trinidad – Mrs. Dharma Armadillo
Alan Tudyk – Duke Weaselton
And additional voices, as if there weren’t enough already!
Sources of Inspiration – An original creation (sadly a rarity, these days!)
Release Dates – Had some early screenings at European film festivals
February 17th, 2016 in Hollywood, California, USA (premiere)
March 4th, 2016 in USA (general release)
Run-time – 108 minutes
Directors – Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Composers – Michael Giacchino
Worldwide Gross – $1.024 billion
Accolades – 46 wins and 66 nominations, including an Oscar win


2016 in History

An attack on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran leads to Saudi Arabi and many other nations cutting ties with Iran
The World Health Organisation announces an outbreak of the Zika Virus
North Korea launches an Earth observation satellite into orbit, and later in the year conducts a large nuclear test
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill issue the Havana Declaration, the first such meeting between leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches since their schism in 1054
The International Criminal Court finds former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the first time the ICC convicted someone of sexual violence
Barack Obama visits Cuba, marking the first time a sitting US president has visited the island nation since Coolidge in 1928
Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić is sentenced to 40 years in prison after being found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the Bosnian War
The four-day war kills nearly 200 people in Nagorno-Karabakh, breaching the 1994 Bishkek Protocol
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung publish the Panama Papers, incriminating masses of wealthy individuals in cases of fraud, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions
Tsai Ing-wen becomes the first female President of Taiwan
The Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel, is opened following two decades of construction work
The UK votes whether or not to leave the EU in a referendum; the “leavers” win by a slim majority and Prime Minister David Cameron resigns, being replaced by the UK’s second female Prime Minister, Theresa May
The app Pokémon Go is released on smartphones, breaking numerous records in terms of sales and revenue
In Nice, France, 86 people are killed when a truck drives into crowds during Bastille Day celebrations; this followed two major terrorist attacks in France the previous year
The final videocassette recorder is manufactured by the Japanese company Funai
Brazil becomes the first South American nation to host the Summer Olympics; later the same month, President Dilma Rousseff is impeached and removed from office
The US and China, together responsible for a huge chunk of the world’s carbon emissions, join the Paris climate agreement; a year later, new US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from it
Global CO2 levels exceed 400 ppm at the time of year normally associated with minimum levels
NASA launches OSIRIS-REx, its first asteroid sample return mission – it is expected to return in 2023
In the USA, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908, ending the longest championship drought in American sports history (just one year after the film Back to the Future Part II predicted it would happen)
In one of the most controversial elections in modern history, businessman Donald Trump is elected as the 45th President of the USA; his main opponent is Hillary Clinton
Colombia comes close to ending over half a century of conflict with a peace deal, but the conflict is still considered to be ongoing
Births of Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, heir apparent to the throne of Bhutan, Prince Oscar, Duke of Skåne and Prince Alexander, Duke of Södermanland


 

The first of our two 2016 releases is Zootopia, another outing for the star Revival directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore. This began as one of several ideas pitched by Howard to John Lasseter, all of which would involve animals. Among them, there was a new version of The Three Musketeers, a sixties-themed story about a “mad doctor cat… who turned children into animals,” and a “bounty hunter pug in space.” (That last one sounds awesome). The running theme with all of these suggestions was that Howard wanted to create a modern film similar to Disney’s Robin Hood from 1973, starring anthropomorphic animals.

Zootopia specifically evolved out of Howard’s desire to create something different from other “talking animal” films; his concept had them living in a modern city designed by animals, for animals, and this idea was apparently well-received by Lasseter, who lifted Howard “in the air like a baby Simba.” (I’ll resist the urge to make a tacky Lasseter joke here). Lasseter suggested that Howard combine the sixties idea with the animal characters, including the space pug – this came together into an early draft called Savage Seas, a spy film which would star an Arctic hare named Jack Savage who was a sort of mammalian James Bond. Around this time, screenwriter Jared Bush was brought on board (he would later become co-director) and he was enthusiastic about the spy idea because his own father and grandfather had worked for the CIA.

Howard and Bush continued to work on the story with the help of the Disney Story Trust, a group of the studio’s top creative minds who meet regularly to discuss projects in development. The first act of the story, which revolved around the animal city, proved to be particularly popular, so the story was altered to focus more fully on this setting, thus dropping the espionage angle. However, the law enforcement aspect was kept and reworked into the police officer plotline, with Nick Wilde the original protagonist and Judy Hopps as his sidekick. The team were “very committed” to this Nick-centred version for a long time, but by late 2014 they decided that audiences would be more engaged with Judy and so switched the lead roles around. This change resulted in a number of characters and scenes being cut, but everyone agreed that it was for the better. By March of 2015, Rich Moore from Wreck-It Ralph had also been added as the film’s third director.

To research for the film, the artists visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom and apparently even went to Kenya, but the bulk of the animal study was conducted over eight months at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where the team focused on capturing different species’ walk cycles and fur colours. To add further authenticity to their work, they also visited the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles to observe the fur textures of various creatures under microscopes in different types of lighting. Overall, eight hundred thousand forms of mammals were used in the film.

The film was completed and released in early 2016 to exceptional box office earnings and largely positive reviews, with many people approving of the film’s tactful handling of delicate social topics. Hard to believe a film so supportive of diversity came out mere months before Trump’s election – talk about irony! Still, let’s try not to get too bogged down in politics as we explore the themes of this thought-provoking film – it doesn’t help to draw specific parallels with the real world in this case, because no single group of animals can be said to be representing a single group of people consistently.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin were cast in the lead roles in spring of 2015, with the filmmakers stating that they liked Bateman’s “funny yet heartfelt side” and “wily, dry-witted sort of voice,” and complimenting Goodwin on her “centred sweetness, tremendous heart and… great sense of humour.” Bateman considered his character “a crafty, sarcastic schemer” and found the role similar to many of his others, explaining that the directors had told him to simply “do what you do” when he asked them what voice he should use. Goodwin, meanwhile, said of her character that “People mistake kindness for naivete or stupidity, and she is a good girl through and through, but she’s not a dumb bunny.”

Judy in sunhat with Gideon

Judy Hopps is our exuberant protagonist in this buddy cop film, a roughly twenty-four-year-old bunny with a dream of becoming a police officer. We first meet her in childhood, where she is already proudly displaying her passion for policing and demonstrating a strong sense of justice. She is shown to be a remarkably resilient child, barely faltering even in the face of vicious bullying courtesy of a local fox named Gideon Grey and refusing to let his taunts get to her. She stands up for her fellow “prey animals” and shows strength and bravery in facing a stronger creature, holding herself with the kind of poise and confidence that you’d expect of someone twice her age. However, the incident does leave a more lasting effect than she realises, as we shall see later on.

Young Judy doesn't know when to quit

The film cuts ahead fifteen years, and Judy is now a sprightly young trainee at a police academy, having pursued her dream career in spite of the many naysayers. While she does initially encounter difficulties with the physically demanding course, she pushes herself as hard as she can and learns to use her wits to defeat her opponents, earning the respect of her trainer. Although this is certainly inspiring, I have to say that I found it to be one of the film’s few weak moments because it felt so cliched. When you compare Judy’s arc with someone like, say, Mike Wazowski’s in Monsters University, the whole “achieving my dream just because I really wanted it” feels a bit stale and unrealistic. I know it sounds negative of me, but really, how likely is it that an animal Judy’s size would be able to excel at such activities as boxing, especially against rhinos? I accept that she has to pass training and become an officer for the rest of the film to be able to happen, but the way it just glosses over her sudden athletic prowess in a montage seems to undermine more challenging animated films of late, which have been teaching kids that success isn’t always guaranteed even with hard work.

As a character, Judy is perhaps most similar to Tiana, another ambitious young woman who had to deal with a lot of discrimination in her quest to achieve her dream career. However, where Tiana faced obstacles posed mainly by racism (never stated outright but implied), Judy’s main obstacle seems to be a sort of combination of this with sexism. It is tough to create direct parallels with real-life situations, but the whole thing about Judy being the “first rabbit officer” feels like a nod to the many first females or first people of a specific minority in various professions in reality. She is a trailblazer, something she recognises even as a child when her parents point out that a “bunny cop” is unheard of, but there’s also a hint of affirmative action in the mayor’s “Mammal Inclusion Initiative” and the disgruntled reaction of Chief Bogo to Judy’s appointment.

Judy a bunny can call another bunny cute

Despite graduating top of her class and being appointed to one of the busiest precincts in the city, Judy still faces obstacles in her quest to become a true cop. Due to Chief Bogo’s prejudices, she is assigned a lowly job on “parking duty” as a meter maid – or at least that is what the film implies. Of course, it’s unlikely that a newly-qualified graduate would be placed on a high-priority case right out of the gate in any circumstances, but clearly we’re supposed to take it for granted that Judy is being held back because Bogo doesn’t have any faith in the abilities of a mere bunny.

Either way, the ever-optimistic Judy uses this as an opportunity to prove herself and sets out to write two hundred tickets before noon, a feat she does accomplish (though it earns her the wrath of the entire neighbourhood). Throughout the film, this feature of her personality remains consistent – Judy is almost always cheerful and energetic, ready to do her best and tackle any problems she faces head-on. However, this rather starry-eyed view of the world does get her into trouble at times, and she displays a tendency towards impatience when things aren’t going smoothly for her. Her nature makes her the perfect contrast to Nick Wilde, whom she meets – and gets duped by – on her first day on the job.

Judy faces Nick in cement

After being sucked into Nick’s scheme to purchase a giant ice-pop (which he then melts down and re-sells at a reduced price to customers of his own), Judy calls him out for his manipulation, only to be given a brutal reality check by the street-smart fox who has clearly seen her type before. While she refuses to be spoken down to, his words strike a chord as she has been feeling frustrated with her meagre duties, leaving her despondent until a gripping chase the next day snaps her out of it.

This chase lands Judy in hot water with the Chief, who sternly reprimands her for abandoning her post. Yet Judy stands her ground and, in another display of the stubbornness and ingenuity which characterises her, manages to convince Bogo to let her take on one of the coveted “Missing Mammal” cases by getting word to the mayor. Even then, however, she is given little help – something which Nick later calls them all out for – and must use her intelligence to find a lead amidst the handful of clues she has.

Judy calls Nick a shifty lowlife

One of these clues leads her to Nick, and this is where the dynamic duo first form. Naturally, at first, they can barely stand one another – Judy grows increasingly irritated with Nick’s sexist quips and he becomes flustered with her tenacity, obviously unused to dealing with an intellectual equal – but for the time being, they are forced to stick together. It’s worth noting that Judy is far from perfect, using blatant blackmail to force Nick to help her on the case, but I’m not criticising her for that – it just makes her a more complex and interesting protagonist. For a police officer, she certainly has a rather hazy moral code! In these early scenes with Nick, we also get a glimpse of Judy’s own inner prejudices when they visit a nudist’s club, something which the small-town girl is clearly uncomfortable with. It’s a small piece of foreshadowing which is paid off later, when we see the other, less funny ways that her upbringing has affected her.

Judy intimidating Mr Big

As the case unwinds, we have some great laughs as Nick continues to exploit Judy’s impatience by deliberately wasting her time at a sloth-run DMV, but then things take a more sinister turn when the pair are kidnapped during their investigations by the animal mafia. Even here, though, Judy shows an impressive amount of bravery (or perhaps stupidity), fearlessly standing up to the crime boss himself, Mr. Big. Her impertinence nearly gets she and Nick killed, but then, one of her good deeds comes back to her in karmic form when Big’s daughter steps in – Judy saved the girl’s life in an earlier scene and now the favour is returned as a nice example of the value of kindness for kids.

Following another lead from Mr. Big and a terrifying chase in the Rainforest District, we are then confronted with one of the film’s more arresting scenes. Chief Bogo turns up to find Judy entangled with a fox (a creature he has an ingrained mistrust of anyway) and a suspiciously missing perpetrator – for him, this is the last straw, and he angrily demands she hand over her badge. The scene sparks a moment of character development in Nick, as he sees Judy being subjected to the same kind of prejudiced treatment that he himself has suffered from, and for the first time, he steps forward in her defence. After criticising the police force for basically hanging her out to dry and reminding them that the terms of her deal with Bogo still stand, the two depart and share a moment aboard the sky tram, where Nick reveals a similar childhood bullying incident that allows he and Judy to bond properly.

Judy comforts Nick in sky tram

From here, it is a relatively smooth road to the end of the case. Working together, Judy and Nick track down all fourteen of the missing mammals and finally earn Bogo’s respect – but then comes the press conference. This is truly one of the film’s best scenes and has been noted by critics for its strong writing; under pressure from the reporters to come up with some explanation for the mysterious “savage” predators, Judy’s inner prejudices rise to the surface and she begins to suggest that there may be something inherently wrong with predators as a group. While she is essentially spouting dogma she’s picked up from Lionheart and her own parents, it’s clear that she believes it to some extent herself, as evidenced by her uncomfortable conversation with Nick afterwards. Hurt, Nick angrily points out the injustice of what she’s just said, and Judy does the same thing that Kenai did when Koda challenged him over his “prejudice” against bears: She tries to make Nick an “exception,” saying “Nick, stop it, you’re not like them!” As Nick repeats “Oh, there’s a ‘them’ now?”, it’s easy to read parallels into the modern situation of race relations, especially in the US, where the film was made.

In Judy’s character, we see an exploration of the different types of bigotry and prejudice. It is not always so avert as it is with a character like Gideon Grey, who loudly and obnoxiously proclaims his views to all and sundry – Judy may mean well, but her rural upbringing and the legacy of her parents’ generations’ beliefs have all had a subconscious effect on her, and she has internalised some of their outdated attitudes without fully realising it. If we look back at the scene where she first sees Nick, she immediately suspects him of wrongdoing even before she’s talked to him. Granted, in that instance she was actually proven right, but as we later learn, this is only because Nick himself has internalised some of the negative stereotypes about his kind and has resolved himself to living within those limitations. The fact is, he is more than just a “sly fox,” but having never had a positive experience with a fox before, Judy dismisses them all as “shifty low-lives” and thus embodies the very mindset which she is so outwardly against. It’s a nuanced piece of writing and makes her one of the most fascinating protagonists in the canon.

Judy ashamed in mayor's office

Of course, what makes us love Judy is that she recognises her mistake almost as soon as she’s made it, and after seeing the effect her actions have had on Zootopia’s predator population, she sets out to make it right. She is helped to come to her senses by an unexpected reunion with her former bully, Gideon Grey, who has now reformed into a gentle baker. After seeing that he has grown into a kind and mature adult and hearing his heartfelt apology, Judy realises once and for all exactly why her treatment of Nick was wrong – because people (or animals) are complex and cannot be neatly categorised with broad generalisations. Finally freed of her “sly fox” perspective and armed with a fresh lead, she races back to Zootopia and tearfully reconciles with her friend, who is then by her side for the remainder of the action.

In the final confrontation with Bellwether, Judy and Nick combine their intellects to outwit her, managing to trap her with her own words and expose her schemes to the rest of the force. There are call-backs to Judy’s hammy “acting” from her childhood stage show, and she also uses what Nick has taught her by taking his recording pen trick and using it on Bellwether. The two of them overcome her by working together, the last thing she’d expect from a “predator” and his “prey,” and by the end of the film, Judy has truly come full circle, recognising the dangers of prejudice not just in others, but in herself.

Judy at Nick's graduation

In Judy’s story arc, we find plenty of valuable lessons for young viewers about the merits of kindness, the evils of discrimination and the rewards of perseverance. Her final speech is worthy of quoting in full: “When I was a kid, I thought Zootopia was this perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, real life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of animal you are, from the biggest elephant, to our first fox, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.” Wise words indeed, Officer Hopps.

Nick patronizes Judy

Our male lead here is the slick and suave Nick Wilde, a thirty-two-year-old fox (rather old for a Disney protagonist) and the latest in a long line of Disney foxes. He was clearly inspired by some of them, particularly the cocksure Robin Hood, but Nick is a much more complex character than any of his older brethren. The closest comparison I could make is with Tod from The Fox and the Hound, who also had to learn some harsh lessons about societal prejudices – what is with Disney and racially-oppressed foxes? Among the Revival heroes, there’s also the designated villain, Wreck-It Ralph, who like Nick has to overcome prejudice from the rest of the gaming community.

Nick first meets Judy during one of his “hustles” and is quick to pull the wool over her eyes, so to speak, taking advantage of her naivete and using well-chosen cracks about her fledgling career to try to wrongfoot her. His earliest scenes establish him as a charmer and something of an actor, able to pull off just about any scheme with subtle manipulation. The interesting thing about his portrayal is that, when Judy first sees him, she unconsciously stereotypes him as a crook and watches him out of suspicion, only to apparently be proven wrong when she sees him trying to purchase a jumbo-pop for his “son.” Then, he turns out to be just as shifty as she first thought and her suspicions appear to have been confirmed – but this film is full of surprises, and we later learn that Nick has trapped himself into living out clichés precisely because he’s tired of fighting society’s expectations of him.

Nick holds pawpsicle for lemmings

As an adult, Nick makes a living by “hustling” Zootopia’s more gullible residents in various ways; the particular scheme we witness involves melting down gigantic ice-pops, re-freezing them into smaller ones and then re-selling them to hungry lemmings on their lunch breaks. When Judy challenges him over it, we see that he comes prepared, brandishing a permit and a license and dismissing her accusation of “false advertising” with a grammatical nuance. However, just like everybody else in Judy’s life, he makes the mistake of underestimating her, and the one thing you come to learn about this rabbit is that she will not take that sitting down. When she takes on a case and her clues lead her to Nick, she uses his own underhanded tricks against him by blackmailing him into helping her, disproving his assumptions that she is “just a dumb bunny.”

You have to hand it to Nick; he tries everything to shake her off. First he takes her to a nudist’s club, and then holds her up for hours at the DMV on purpose when he knows she’s on a time-sensitive mission. Eventually, things get too crazy even for him when they both end up being escorted to the heart of the criminal underworld, only for Judy’s good karma to get them out of trouble in the nick of time. From this point on, we see Nick beginning to develop a genuine interest in the case, and he reaches a personal turning point after the nasty incident with Mr. Manchas.

Nick watches Judy give up badge

As I mentioned in my discussion of Judy, this is a key moment for both characters, but more so for Nick. In the scene, as he watches Judy being subjected to the same kind of unfair treatment that he’s dealt with all his life, his snarky façade melts away and he suddenly realises that he sympathises with the bunny. We then see that, for all his “shifty” ways, Nick is a loyal friend to those who earn his respect, and he steps forward to defend Judy despite knowing that Bogo has no respect for his kind. Bogo, indeed, seems so surprised that he makes little argument and leaves the two of them free to continue working on their case, but first, Nick and Judy share a moment of understanding. Like her, he too was bullied over his species as a child, but Nick’s reaction is more upsetting; whereas Judy simply used the incident with Gideon as fuel to fire her determination to prove her doubters wrong, Nick internalised the cruel words of his tormentors and grew into a cynical adult, hiding his pain from onlookers while at the same time confining himself to other peoples’ definitions of him.

Young Nick miserable

Thankfully, meeting Judy begins to change all this – for the first time, someone seems to believe in him. Although he jokingly shrugs off her comment that he’d “make a pretty good cop,” the idea clearly attracts him, because when she later brings it up more seriously at the press conference, he actually does fill out the enrolment form she offers him. Unfortunately, things fall apart after Judy’s rather eugenics-like comments about “biology”, which naturally leaves him feeling betrayed and insulted. Nick’s reaction in this scene is sure to feel painfully familiar to any real victims of discrimination among the audience, as he sharply rebuffs Judy’s attempts to excuse herself and notes that he was aware of some of her prejudices from the beginning (“Fox repellent? Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice that little item the first time that we met.”)

Nick and Judy fight

Only after she has returned and sincerely apologised does Nick reconcile with her; he knew her heart was in the right place, but it’s good to see that he didn’t just let her off the hook without first making sure she’d learned her lesson. In the final confrontation with Bellwether and her cronies, Nick subtly disproves further stereotypes – he may be a predator, but he’s small and rather defenceless against the hulking rams, and he’s visibly more frightened than Judy is (as he was when faced by Mr. Big earlier in the film). Such details challenge not only his status as a predator to Judy’s prey, but also as a male to her female – how often do we see the female lead boldly take charge in the climactic action scene of a film? It’s a refreshingly different take on masculinity which I’m glad they went with; Nick shows that it’s okay for a man to not always be in control, and to feel fear.

When facing off against Bellwether, Nick and Judy use their wits to turn the tables on her and play into the evil sheep’s own twisted perceptions of them: Judy makes out that she is just a scared and helpless little bunny, while Nick acts the part of the “savage predator” beautifully right up to the last moment. Judy also uses that classic technique that Mr. Incredible famously called Syndrome out on – “You got me monologuing!” – and keeps Bellwether gloating long enough to extract (and record) a confession, at which point they drop the charade and watch her arrest with satisfaction.

Judy and Nick in cop car

The development of Nick and Judy’s friendship feels so real, because it blossoms out of shared experiences and a deeper understanding of one another, just the way real friendships do. The two of them help each other to grow in the way that only our best friends in life can; when they first meet, both are flawed in their own ways and need to change, even though they don’t necessarily realise it. Notably, both are prejudiced against one another, with Nick patronizing and dismissive of Judy, and she cautious and distrustful of him, but as they get to know each other, they come to realise that they are more than just their species. Nick slowly reveals an inner sensitivity and a strong sense of loyalty, as well as a desire for companionship, which Judy comes to admire. She, in turn, disproves his assumptions about bunnies and opens his mind to the idea that he is capable of more than he knows, steering him away from his old habits and reforming him into a respected officer of the law. (In a way, his story mirrors that of real-life fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr., who also put his knowledge of the “other side” to good use in later life by working with the FBI).

It’s easy to see why Nick and Judy were so well-received by audiences around the world. A well-developed character is a key component of any good film, and with two of them as our leads here, Zootopia is off to a very strong start.

Bellwether you did fine

Assistant Mayor Dawn Bellwether is yet another of those “twist” villains so popular in recent Disney films, but she’s a lot scarier than she looks, functioning as a kind of animal supremacist who’s using a vicious scheme involving illegal drugs to try to overthrow the city’s political system.

In a fun bit of visual irony, Bellwether, a sheep, is the second-in-command to Zootopia’s Mayor Lionheart, who is, of course, a lion. On the surface, she appears meek and mild-mannered enough, if rather harried and flustered, and when Judy first meets her at her graduation ceremony the sheep is all smiles and encouragement. However, this front hides a bitter nature, as Bellwether is secretly working to thwart Lionheart and all other predators like him, cold-heartedly pulling strings to get herself into the top position.

The key line to keep in mind when considering Bellwether’s character is one she delivers to Nick and Judy while still ostensibly on their side. As the three of them look at a “World’s Best Dad” mug given to her by Lionheart, with the word “Dad” crossed out and hastily replaced with “Assistant Mayor,” Bellwether sighs and says “Feels good to be appreciated.” While the mood of the scene suggests that we should find this funny because she seems blind to Lionheart’s indifference towards her, we soon see that she is all too aware of it and is no doubt seething with suppressed rage even as she cheerily helps Nick and Judy. She knows he doesn’t appreciate her at all… and it stings.

Bellwether in her boiler room

While we’re not told anything about Bellwether’s past, it’s reasonable to assume that she encountered the ugly shadow of prejudice in her earlier life, just as Nick and Judy did. However, while Judy challenged herself to defy the narrow-minded and Nick retreated into the role that society had picked out for him, Bellwether’s reaction is blind rage and aggression – like many Disney villains before her, her arc shows us what could have happened to Nick and Judy had they allowed their anger to lead them down the wrong path. In her quest to eliminate the city’s predators, Bellwether ends up becoming the very bully she so despises and descends to a level far beneath anything the predators she’s so biased against ever reached. Using an underground network of drug-trafficking rams, she essentially poisons various predators across the city and manufactures a smear campaign against them to get Lionheart thrown out of office – pretty despicable.

You wonder whether Bellwether initially ran against Lionheart in the city’s elections and lost; perhaps this is what fuelled her ire towards him in particular. Or maybe she helped him get into office with the plan of overthrowing him in mind from the beginning. Either way, his rude and contemptuous treatment of her does nothing to help his case and only increases her resentment towards predators in general, strengthening her resolve to get rid of him by any means at her disposal. Like so many other more “powerful” creatures in the film, Lionheart makes the fatal mistake of underestimating citizens based on their species – Nick does it, and Bogo does it, but Lionheart’s prejudice nearly costs him his life and certainly costs him his job.

Bellwether with gun

To be fair to Bellwether, she does show a genuine sense of camaraderie with those who she believes to be suffering from the same discrimination as herself. Her happiness at seeing Judy, a small and “meek” prey animal like herself, graduating top of her class from police training academy, is undoubtedly real, for instance. However, she’s not above using even these so-called “friends”, as she proves when she pretends to “help” Judy find Manchas with the traffic-cams and thus sets up a situation which will implicate Lionheart. Still, after Lionheart has been removed from office, she does offer Judy a position as the public face of the ZPD – as she puts it, “I did like you” – and seems genuinely sad to see the girl walk away from the career of her dreams out of guilt (obviously a feeling she can’t relate to).

Bellwether as mayor

In the end, Bellwether’s pride comes before a fall, and it is her gloating over the success of her plot which leads to her downfall – seriously, who confesses the details of a crime in the presence of a known police officer? Judy’s surveillance skills come in handy and the unfriendly ungulate is finally toppled from her perch at last, exchanging her floaty dresses for fluorescent orange prison wear; her exterior matches her interior at last.

I’ve made no secret of my indifference towards these “twist” villains, but Bellwether is arguably the best-handled of them and I found her more effective than her predecessors. Still, I’d love to see a return to the overtly evil and bombastic villains of the Renaissance era, even just for one film – they’re so much fun! Then again, we’ve seen how badly such villains can fail in circumstances like this (remember Ratcliffe?), so perhaps it’s best that they went with the understated route for Bellwether, especially since this is a crime drama. On the whole, I’d say she works well for the tone of the film, even if she doesn’t stand out amongst the wider catalogue of Disney villains.

Chief Bogo demands badge

The name for Chief Bogo was taken from the Swahili word mbogo, which means buffalo – talk about literal naming. Bogo becomes Judy’s boss once she is assigned to his precinct in the ZPD, and from day one he expresses a clear disregard for her ambitions. Bogo is a rather ill-tempered Cape Buffalo and he runs a tight ship, so he has no time for Judy’s dreams of glory; to him, she is a rookie, and thus she is given only menial tasks at first. While this makes sense to a point, it has to be said that he seems to have a bit of a bias against smaller animals like herself, deliberately making things as hard as possible for her once she’s forced her way onto a case. Judy is by far the smallest member of the squad and Bogo makes no pretence about hiding his displeasure at being assigned a rabbit officer. He also displays some signs of hidden irritation towards Assistant Mayor Bellwether and Mrs. Otterton, whose interference ends up getting Judy onto a case she wasn’t supposed to have.

Chief Bogo impressed

Bogo’s supposed to represent workplace discrimination, but for all his gruff and bluster he’s really not a bad guy; once Judy has proved her worth as a cop, he comes to respect her, seeming genuinely disappointed when she turns down the chance of being the face of the police department. The moment where he refers to her as a “good cop” marks the turning point for his character and from that point on, he treats her like one of the team. He also learns to appreciate foxes, too, recognising Nick’s part in solving the case and exchanging a bit of banter with him in the bullpen once the latter has joined the force.

Bogo is a likeable guy despite his imposing appearance, probably because it’s tough not to like any character voiced by Idris Elba; the guy has a natural warmth to his voice which tells us early on that Bogo isn’t as impenetrable as he seems. Of course, catching him playing on a Gazelle app helps, too!

Clawhauser introduction

Benjamin Clawhauser is one of my favourite side characters – look at him, he’s so fluffy. This guy is a tubby sweet-toothed cheetah who works as the ZPD’s receptionist and radio dispatcher, and he serves as another example of that kind of “innocent prejudice” which Judy herself becomes guilty of later. Ironically, in Clawhauser’s case, this prejudice is directed towards Judy herself; upon her arrival, he unintentionally insults her by using what bunnies in this world consider a kind of slur – he calls her “cute”, while also expressing surprise at her appointment to the squad. Judy gently reprimands him in a scene that could have been lifted straight from real life (albeit with much more offensive language in place of “cute”) and to his credit, he immediately apologies, having been unaware that the term was taboo. Some people complain that people nowadays are too easily offended, but Clawhauser demonstrates the correct response to such situations and it’s so simple that you wonder why people make such a fuss about it: You simply acknowledge your mistake and move on.

Clawhauser moved to records

Later, after Judy’s press conference has stirred up anti-predator sentiment amongst the Zootopian population, Clawhauser experiences discrimination himself for the first time as he is moved downstairs to avoid ruffling any feathers with visitors to the ZPD. His sad resignation to this demotion appears to be one of the key reasons why Judy guiltily rejects the offer of heading the ZPD marketing campaign in the following scene; the two have become friends by this point, and Judy feels terrible knowing that her prejudices have caused trouble for so many people.

Happily for Clawhauser, he is reinstated to his old post after Judy fixes the mess she’s created, and we last see him having the time of his life at the Gazelle concert (and I have to note the splendid irony of a cheetah being a fanboy of a gazelle, their natural prey in the real world).

Stu and Bonnie Hopps

Okay, now, from here on out we have a whole army of supporting characters to get through (I suppose it is set in a city, it’s bound to be crowded), so I’m afraid I can’t spend too long on them and I’ll have to overlook some of the most minor for space and time reasons.

Judy’s parents are Bonnie and Stu Hopps, and they function as typical rural types who, while they love their daughter dearly, also fear for her wellbeing when she expresses a desire to do something different. The Hopps both work as carrot farmers and it’s established that this is a traditional family occupation; Judy is apparently the first to dream of something bigger, and at first, her parents try to warn her not to get too committed to an unattainable goal. While this might seem negative, in their eyes, they are simply protecting her from what they see as inevitable failure – things were different back in their day, and no doubt they have witnessed (or been subjected to) prejudice themselves in their time, so they fear that the world will be just as cruel to Judy (and to be fair, they’re not entirely wrong). What might come across as cynicism is really just well-intentioned realism, because like any good parents, their goal is to prevent their daughter from being hurt.

However, in another reflection of the real world, the optimism and change of the new generation have an effect on the Hopps, too, and Judy’s progressive attitudes inspire them to consider a business venture with a predator – Gideon Grey, no less – something they admit they would never have done if it weren’t for her inspiration. It’s heartening to see them opening their minds and teaming up with people they formerly considered enemies, and one can only hope that somewhere out there, real young people watching will be similarly influenced for the better.

Gideon Grey attacks Judy

Speaking of change, we also witness some in the fox Gideon Grey, who gets a surprising amount of development for such a minor character. Gideon is a parody of the stereotypical uneducated “hick,” and he bullies Judy during their childhood, using his strength and claws to intimidate her and essentially warning her not to step out of line in one of the film’s harsher scenes. This moment stays with Judy, in the same way that Nick’s hazing from the cub scouts stays with him, but what’s interesting is that the moment clearly stays with Gideon himself, too. You wonder what his parents are like; he was probably raised in a rigidly “traditional” family, where boys are boys – or foxes are foxes – and rabbits are rabbits, all that sort of thing, making him uncomfortable and insecure when someone like Judy appears to step out of her prescribed role.

Gideon Grey as an adult

Later on, he and Judy reunite as adults and we see that Gideon has completely reformed himself; to Judy’s surprise, he is now a gentle baker who works in a partnership with her parents. This appears to be the clue to Gideon’s original behaviour; as he puts it, he “had a lot of self-doubt,” which given his adult profession could be read as him wanting to do something traditionally considered “woman’s work” and being told he couldn’t. It’s hinted from the way he apologises to Judy that he has been in therapy, and it’s honestly so uplifting to see him happy and comfortable with himself in his final scene. You can tell that he’s genuinely remorseful for the way he treated Judy, and I think it’s good for kids to see that a person’s actions don’t have to define them forever – with the character of Gideon, the film shows us that life isn’t always as simple as “good” and “evil”, and that people who do bad things can make amends and turn their lives around. If only they could have done this with Foxy Loxy! When a minor character like this gets such a satisfying arc, you know you’re watching a well-written film.

Mayor Lionheart at Judy's graduation

Another significant character here is Mayor Leodore Lionheart, the head honcho of Zootopia, who is present for Judy’s graduation ceremony (which he uses to showcase his “Mammal Inclusion Initiative”) and later works to find the cause of the savage animal plague. He fulfils the same basic function as Alistair Krei did in Big Hero 6, acting as a kind of decoy to distract us from the film’s true villain.

Lionheart is not exactly what you’d call evil, but his blatantly disrespectful treatment of his assistant is what causes the entire conflict of the film, in the same way that Krei’s negligence caused the conflict of his. Lionheart’s dismissive attitude towards Bellwether prompts her scheme to overthrow him (or at least encourages it) and he is actually removed from office thanks to her efforts, failing to be reinstated after her arrest because of his mishandling of the savage animals themselves. While he is rather self-serving and thoughtless, again much like Krei, he does seem to have genuine concern for the welfare of the targeted animals (as we see when he frets over the situation even after being arrested) and is really more of a buffoon than an actual villain. Incidentally, his position as a lion comes as no surprise – they do have a tendency to rule the roost, especially in Disney films (I wonder if he’s any relation of Scar’s?)

Ottertons together

Mr and Mrs. Otterton have small but crucial roles in the plot. Emmit Otterton is the particular missing mammal who Judy gets assigned to locate, and by tracking the clues across town, she (and the audience) comes to learn an awful lot about the bloke. It’s hilarious actually; you have to wonder if his wife has any idea that he’s a member of a nudist club, or that he acts as the mafia’s florist… I bet he’s got some great stories! Emmit is one of the many victims of Bellwether’s “night howler” campaign, being struck with one of the poisonous darts while en route to Mr. Big’s place – by the time Judy finds him, he has degenerated into a kind of feral monster. It’s actually quite tragic when we see him in a brief scene, slowly making his way through physical therapy while his wife looks on in tears… damn, it’s almost too real for a moment.

Mrs. Otterton herself may be small, but she’s gutsy and persistent, with her main scene coming at the ZPD when she interrupts an argument between Judy and Bogo to plead her husband’s case. She’s clearly desperate, and even tough guy Bogo is softened upon listening to her begging them to help. Kind-hearted Judy quickly takes the case for herself, and with the convenient confirmation of Bellwether (and by extension, Mayor Lionheart), Bogo is left with little choice but to acquiesce, making Mrs. Otterton the main reason why Judy is ever able to become a proper cop in the first place!

The Ottertons are reunited towards the end with a beaming Judy looking on, and their gratitude towards her is obvious. Emmit never speaks a word during the entire film, but his presence is crucial to the plot and makes he and his wife highly memorable additions to the cast.

Mr Big Zootopia

Among the many zany personalities Judy meets on her mission to find Mr. Otteron, we find Mr. Big, one of the florist’s clients who just so happens to be the leader of the Zootopia mafia. He’s a Godfather parody in the form of an Arctic shrew, and he manages to be incredibly entertaining in his limited screen time (even if the reference might go over the heads of the younger viewers). Judy and Nick are brought to him by his team of polar bear body guards after they catch the pair snooping around in his car, and at first, it seems as though there will be little more to him than the Godfather schtick. Judy brazenly revealing that she is a cop is the “icing” on the cake, so to speak, and Nick is sure they’re done for – but then we suddenly find that Judy just happened to save his daughter’s life the other day, and suddenly, he’s indebted to them.

In yet another example of the characters in this film being more than they appear to be, Mr. Big reveals a softer side and invites Judy and Nick to his daughter’s wedding (complete with microscopic slices of cake), where he provides them with further information for their case. Later on, it proves useful to have connections in the underworld, as with Mr. Big’s help, Judy and Nick are able to use the old Finding Nemo gambit on the sneaky Duke Weaselton to get the last crucial piece of information they need. While this is all well and good, you do wonder how this relationship continued with Nick and Judy both cops and fully aware of Mr Big’s criminal dealings…

Duke Weaselton about to be iced

Speaking of Duke… guess who’s back… back again… Tudyk’s back… tell a friend (sorry, slipped into 2000 for a second there). Yes, the indomitable Alan Tudyk is here yet again for his usual Disney role, this time as Duke Weaselton, a sleazy small-time criminal who has had past dealings with both Nick and Mr. Big, and who engages in an almost Tom and Jerry-style chase with Judy not long after she joins the ZPD. After she catches him stealing what Bogo calls “a bag of mouldy onions,” Judy chases him through the streets of Zootopia’s “Little Rodentia” district where the residents are all tiny rodents, creating widespread chaos as buildings begin to topple (where are their foundations?). Ultimately, Judy catches Duke, but he’s soon back out on the streets again because towards the end of the film, she and Nick seek him out once again looking for information and use their new friend Mr. Big to get it out of him. They find him selling bootleg, animal-style copies of various Disney classics in a great visual gag, and the scene also reuses the Frozen gag of having another character mispronounce the name of Tudyk’s.

Tudyk is as enjoyable as ever in this minor role; it’s so funny seeing him go from playing a high-powered businessman like Krei to what is basically Zootopia’s version of a drug dealer (Duke is Doug the Ram’s supplier). The man can play anything!

Mr Manchas Zootopia

Next up is Mr. Manchas, a black panther (or jaguar, as they call him in the film) who serves as Mr. Big’s personal chauffeur. He provides a vital link in the chain of events which lead Judy to the Cliffside retreat where the imprisoned animals are, and it is Mr. Big himself who sends her to him. When she and Nick find him, he appears to have lost an eye to Mr. Otterton, who was darted with a “night howler” while Manchas was driving him to his boss’s place. While understandably nervous, he is prepared to answer their questions – until Doug the Ram strikes again, darting him even as he speaks to them at the door. Transformed into a “savage,” Manchas loses control and Nick and Judy barely escape with their lives as he becomes one of the scariest characters in the film. After tracking him back to the Cliffside retreat, Judy finds the rest of the missing mammals in the same state (including Otterton) and this is the last we see of Manchas, although presumably he is cured along with the rest by the end of the film (shame about his eye, though).

Doug the Ram in lab

We also mustn’t neglect to mention Bellwether’s main henchman, a sinister and emotionless ram named Doug who runs a secret laboratory in a battered old train car underground, where he prepares the night howler darts. Doug is also responsible for the actual darting and is seen to be quite the sniper, landing expert shots on moving targets from great distances away – by the start of the film, he’s already nabbed fourteen predators, with more being taken during the latter stages of the film. He’s just gearing up to shoot some poor cheetah when Judy and Nick finally track him down and knock him out of the train car, which he’s last seen sitting dejectedly outside of while the pair get it going and escape with his lab.

Mind you, they don’t get away without a fight. In an obvious nod to Breaking Bad, Doug has two henchmen of his own called Woolter and Jesse, and these two pursue Nick and Judy for quite some time before they manage to shake them off. The creepy, rectangular pupils of the sheep’s eyes make them all the more sinister to look at; I have to give Disney credit for managing to make sheep, of all animals, look truly threatening.

Finnick I have to find Nick

From here on out, we’re dealing mostly with bit-parts and one-scene wonders. Baby-faced Finnick is an accomplice of Nick’s in his hustles; when Judy first meets the pair of them, Finnick is in disguise as a literal baby in an elephant costume and absolutely owning it. However, he is just one more example of the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme, because we later see that he’s actually a gruff-voiced adult with a rather aggressive streak. That said, he does seem to take a liking to Judy after she puts Nick in his place, and he later helps her find him (off screen) when she returns to the city to apologise.

Yax gives license plate

Yax is (unsurprisingly) a yak who runs a naturalist’s club frequented by Emmit Otterton (seriously, that guy sounds like a riot). Judy and Nick meet him when they go there searching for clues to the otter’s whereabouts, and mild-mannered Yax welcomes them inside, recommending that they talk to the yoga instructor since she is an elephant and probably has a good memory. Yet he turns out to have a far superior memory himself – something he’s apparently unaware of – and he ends up giving Judy all the help she could possibly need by rattling off various specific details about Otterton’s last visit.

Flash laughingPriscilla the sloth

These guys were some of the first characters we met, way back in the film’s trailers. Yes, Flash and Priscilla here are just two of the many sloths who run the city’s DMV, a situation which causes endless frustration for Judy when Nick takes her there to run a plate. We get a rather extended gag involving the sloths doing their work at a snail’s pace, even speaking in a drawn-out, monosyllabic way, while Judy hastily tries to finish their sentences and hurry them along. It’s all to no avail; they seem to be operating on an entirely different timeline and no amount of pushing and shoving will get them moving any faster.

Flash appears to be an acquaintance of Nick’s (“Flash, Flash, hundred-yard Dash!”) and has a good sense of humour, enjoying a painfully slow chuckle over a joke from Nick. At the end of the film, Judy and Nick also pull him over for speeding (ironically) – it’s so funny, I almost feel sorry for the guy. He just wants to be fast!

Priscilla only gets a line or two; she is one of Flash’s colleagues and makes an appearance when Flash enjoys Nick’s joke so much that he feels the need to share it with her. This was a brief cameo role for none other than Kristen Bell – Anna herself – who adores sloths in real life and considered the role a real treat.

Gazelle interview

Okay, I understand that you’d managed to get Shakira into the film and wanted to make good use of her, but this character is kind of creepily prominent. Gazelle is a pop star who, despite enjoying widespread fame, is apparently a kind of Zootopia mascot – it’s as if Beyoncé never left Houston and only held her concerts there. Shakira is said to have asked the designers to make the character curvier, since the original version was deemed too thin; I’m sure the furries appreciated that. Aside from providing the film’s only song, Gazelle also welcomes visitors to the city from a billboard outside the railway station, and later she hosts a peace rally (which doesn’t seem to go too well) while we listen to a voiceover from her about how she wants the old Zootopia back. I know she’s only trying to help, but what does a rich, privileged star like her know about prejudice?

Fru Fru in wedding dress

Next, we have Fru Fru, a girlish Arctic shrew who happens to be the daughter of the city’s crime boss. We first see her briefly while she’s out enjoying a shopping trip in Little Rodentia; Judy and Duke are having their chase, and Duke kicks a giant advertising doughnut towards the little shrew to distract Judy. The bunny just barely manages to grab the doughnut in time, saving Fru Fru and even throwing in a little compliment. This act of kindness pays off later when Fru Fru steps in to save Judy and Nick from her father’s wrath, and the pair attend her wedding. The last time we see her, she is pregnant (damn, she and her hubbie moved fast) and announces that she will name the baby after Judy. Aww!

Major Friedkin

Major Friedkin is Judy’s drill sergeant at police training academy; she’s a large and burly polar bear who takes no nonsense from her students and pushes them to their limits in a challenging series of physical workouts. While she is one of the few larger animals Judy meets who doesn’t discriminate against her, she doesn’t go easy on her either, barking “You’re dead, fuzz-butt!” and various colourful variations of the same as Judy fails each task. Eventually, her persistence pays off and Judy begins to excel, to Friedkin’s obvious delight; presumably, she always knew Judy was capable of succeeding, and as a female herself in a traditionally-male role, it must bring her an extra sense of pride to see such a small girl graduating top of her class. Also, she’s wonderfully funny – you can tell Fuschia! had a great time with this little role.

Jerry Jumbeaux Jr

Jerry Jumbeaux Jr. offers a snapshot of the kind of casual, day-to-day racism that citizens like Nick face regularly in Zootopia. He is a mean and quite blatantly racist / speciest elephant who runs an ice-cream parlour in the town centre, and at first, he tries to use a kind of segregation argument to avoid serving Nick and his “son”. Only when Judy steps in and puts him in his place by noting the poor hygiene standards of his establishment does he finally concede, but he stands as an example of the kind of ingrained prejudice against foxes which Nick must overcome.

Madge the Badger

Dr. Madge the Honey Badger is seen briefly at the Cliffside retreat, where she has an argument with Mayor Lionheart about what to do with the savage animals currently being held there. Her opinion is that they need to go public with their theories, but she is vehemently shut down by Lionheart, whose own status as a predator would put him at risk of alienation. When Judy’s phone goes off, alerting the pair to her presence, Madge is last seen ordering security to sweep the area and advising Lionheart to leave. We aren’t told exactly what role she plays in the investigation of the “night howler” business, but she must be fairly important to get private conferences with the Mayor.

Nangi does Yoga

Nangi the elephant has already been mentioned; she is Emmit Otterton’s yoga instructor at Yax’s club, and the person he directs Judy and Nick to speak to about the otter. Yax believes her to possess a strong memory (an example of positive stereotyping, since she is an elephant), but as it turns out, she’s totally disinterested and doesn’t even recognise Otterton’s name, replying to Yax’s probing with some hilarious deadpan. As another addition to the film’s roster of characters doing unexpected things, she is remarkably flexible for an elephant and reminded me distantly of Elephanchine and her dance troupe from Fantasia.

Bucky Oryx Antlerson

Bucky and Pronk Oryx-Antlerson are Judy’s neighbours in her cramped Zootopia apartment. They are defensive and rather selfish, announcing as soon as they see her that they’re loud – “Don’t expect us to apologise for it!” We later hear their arguments coming through the paper-thin walls, referencing the famous viral recordings from the eighties known as Shut Up, Little Man!, which featured a pair of alcoholics in San Francisco arguing in a similar way. (The pair may also have been inspired by the arguing rams from Brother Bear). The Oryx-Antlersons are also shown to be rather nosy, eavesdropping on Judy’s phone calls, as well as pessimistic, reminding her that the next day might be worse than the last.

Two of the most minor roles are those of Mrs. Dharma Armadillo, who is Judy’s landlady when she moves to Zootopia and sternly warns her not to lose her key, and “Frantic Pig,” the owner of a grocery store which Duke robs for night howler ingredients, who then screams at Judy to stop him.

Moose news anchor

Finally, we must also note the animal news anchors, because they were changed by the animators for various international releases of the film. The main one featured in the standard release is a moose named Peter Moosebridge (a parody of his voice actor, Peter Mansbridge), who is seen in the American, Italian, French, Canadian, Russian and Mexican versions. He remains a moose in the British version, but his name is changed to Moosos Alexander (voiced by Vassos Alexander), yet the home media release keeps the American name and voice in place (it’s so confusing). Abroad, he became a koala named David Koalabell for the Australian and New Zealand versions, a jaguar named Boi Chá in the Brazilian version, a tanuki named Michael Tanuyama in the Japanese version, and an unnamed giant panda in the Chinese version.

 

Animation

The actual animation was done in temporary quarters at a warehouse in North Hollywood (as was Moana’s), because the Disney Animation headquarters in Burbank were being renovated.

The most significant challenge to the animators on this film was all the fur; Disney hadn’t had much experience of animating fur since Bolt eight years earlier and the software from that time was no longer up to the task. Thus, the IT engineers once again had to create all-new software for their purposes, the result being a program called iGroom, which gave the artists more precise control of the brushing, shaping and shading of fur. The technology also allowed them to include a hidden under-layer which gave the fur a degree of plushness not seen in earlier films, something which )Judy and Nick each had around two-and-a-half million individual hairs, while a giraffe had about nine million and a gerbil had a more conservative 480,000. However, even a creature as small as a rodent would have more individual hairs than the 400,000 that Elsa had on her head.

Clawhauser oh chief

Zootopia also marked the second time that Disney had used their Hyperion renderer following Big Hero 6. For this film, a new fur paradigm was added to the software to allow the dense fur on the animals to be shown more realistically, and a real-time display application called Nitro was used to further consistency, keeping the fur intact and making it look subtler. Before this, the animators would have to try to predict how the fur would work while preparing silhouettes or poses for the characters, so the new method saved a lot of time. The tree-and-plant generator from Frozen, Bonsai, was also used again here to create more detailed trees.

Judy's school show

For me, one of the funniest parts of the animation came right near the beginning, when a young Judy is starring in her school play. The expressions and reactions of the kids are so realistic and adorable; everyone looks self-conscious and nervous with “rabbit-in-the-headlights” eyes, and even their line deliveries are deliberately wooden, hinting at the days of rehearsals they must have done. It swept me right back to my own school plays from years ago, where all of us must have looked just as awkward. The little guy handling the music is especially funny, nearly stealing the show when he cues up Judy’s police office costume with an old-school cop show theme.

The sloth animation is also fun to watch, although it has to be said that the joke outstays its welcome just a tad. The slow dawning of different expressions on Flash’s face as his mood glacially shifts through the scene are a scream, but what really sells it is the animation of the other animals, all moving at normal pace and all struggling not to lose it as the sloths creep about. The young pig having her driver’s license photo taken is my favourite; it takes so long for the sloth to take the picture that she checks to see if he’s okay, missing the flash.

 

Plot

The theme of prejudice is an unusual and topical one for Disney to tackle (at least nowadays), and they do it very well. One persistent problem I’ve noticed with Revival films is that they seem to be plagued with poor writing, but thankfully that’s not the case here; Zootopia features one of the sharpest scripts of the era, including lots of cleverly handled moments which are sure to get people of all ages thinking about their own conduct.

Originally, the film was going to have even darker material than the drugs and racism we already have in the final version. Back when Nick was going to be the lead, there was a whole subplot about predators being given shock collars when they “come of age,” with cut scenes involving a young polar bear named Morris getting his at his birthday party and immediately being shocked by it for “getting excited.” There was also a scene (which you can find online) where Nick would visit a doctor and be required to briefly remove his collar; the look of relief on his face tells us just how uncomfortable they must be to wear, but the nursing staff are all terrified, apparently expecting him to savage them all the moment the collar’s influence is gone. This was going to lead to Nick creating an illegal theme park called “Wild Times” where predators could enjoy time without their collars, but the entire plotline ended up being dropped when Judy became the protagonist.

Nick-collar_off
Screenshot from cut scene

The reason for this change was largely due to test audiences not connecting as well to Nick in early screenings of the story; they were instead drawn to Judy, then a supporting character, so she was upgraded to the lead and Nick was made into her accomplice. The change came in late 2014, so once again the team were under time pressure to re-work everything to fit this new script – Jared Bush was brought on at this time as the film’s third co-director alongside Byron Howard and Rich Moore.

With a story like this, it’s highly tempting to make direct parallels with real-life situations – reading “predators” as representing specific ethnic groups, for instance – but I think it’s important to avoid doing this, because it causes all sorts of complications and muddies the film’s basic message of tolerance and equality. The film’s characters cannot simply be divided into predators and prey, and then be read as representing black and white, because the depiction of prejudice between the characters is more nuanced than that. Judy is a prey animal but suffers from discrimination, while Mayor Lionheart is a predator who doesn’t; the prejudices of this world seem to revolve more around old human phrases and stereotypes regarding particular species (i.e. “dumb bunny” and “sly fox”). Certain scenes, particularly the ones in the ice-cream parlour or at Judy’s graduation, were clearly inspired by real-life scenarios from history, but it’s important to remember that it’s just inspiration – the filmmakers are making a general statement about the dangers of prejudice, not critiquing specific types of prejudice in modern society.

Zootopia segregation

As I mentioned in the character section, my only real problem with the story here is the hand-waving of Judy’s training problems with a quick montage, which seemed to contradict the messages in some other recent animated films from Disney-Pixar like Monsters University or Cars 3. Those films taught kids a harsh truth about life; that sometimes, wanting something and even working hard for it might still not be enough to actually get you it, and that it’s important not to let that get you down, instead picking yourself up and doing the best you can with what you have. I know that this film has a different point to make, but the way Judy goes from bottom to top of her class almost overnight feels rather forced, glossing over the obvious physical limitations of being, you know, a rabbit.

 

Cinematography

Much like the last film, this one required the creation of an entire city as its main setting, so the filmmakers looked to several real-world ones for inspiration, including New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Brasília. The specific challenge of developing a city that could be inhabited by characters of such varying sizes was addressed through talks between the filmmakers, Americans With Disabilities Act specialists and HVAC system designers. Then, for help designing the vehicles, the filmmakers consulted with the former chief creative officer of Ford, J. Mays. The different biomes of the city look fantastic and feature some creative design aspects – I only wish we could see more of some of the more overlooked areas! Perhaps in a sequel…

Among the other settings, the Cliffside retreat inhabited by the howling timber wolves is probably my favourite; it’s very atmospheric. That said, there’s really no weak link in the various settings featured here – this is another very bright and good-looking effort from Disney.

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Several scenes in the film standout for their composition and frightening atmosphere, in particular the fight between Judy and Gideon Grey in her childhood, the traumatising hazing Nick undergoes at the hands of the cub scouts in his childhood, and their carefully acted “attack” to fool Bellwether, which is done so convincingly that I remember being shocked for a moment in the cinema the first time I saw it, wondering if Disney were actually about to kill off their main character. Nick’s design was heavily inspired by Robin Hood’s, another popular anthropomorphic fox from Disney’s back catalogue, while Judy was given purple eyes to brighten up her rather dull grey colouring and emphasise her energetic personality.

Nick attacks Judy

One of the best things about this film’s visuals is that they incorporate a number of clever animal-related gags that send up elements of real human culture. For instance, when Judy boards the train to Zootopia and sets up Gazelle’s song on her iPod, we get a glimpse of many other artists on her playlist: The Beagles, Black Sable, Catty Perry, Destiny’s Cub, Ewe 2, Fleetwood Yak, Fur Fighters, Gun N’ Rodents, Hyena Gomez, Kanine West and Mick Jaguar. These are of course references to the bands and singers, Destiny’s Child, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Katy Perry, Fleetwood Mac, Guns N’ Roses, Selena Gomez, Kanye West, U2, Mick Jagger, and Foo Fighters.

Zootopia bootleg DVDs

Later, we also get a scene featuring Duke Weaselton selling bootleg copies of various Disney films, including some upcoming ones. We see “Pig Hero 6,” “Floatzen,” “Wrangled,” “Wreck-It Rhino,” “Meowana” and “Giraffic”, with the latter referring to the now-shelved project, Gigantic.

As well as these, we also get various visual gags in the advertising seen throughout the city, including plays on brands like Lucky Charms cereal (Lucky Chomps), Urban Outfitters (Urban Snoutfitters), Uber (Zuber), Prada (Preyda), Popsicles (Pawpsicles), Lehman Bros. (Lemming Bros.), Trader Joe’s (Trader Doe’s), Macy’s department store (Mousy’s), MasterCard (MousterCharge), First National Bank (Furs National Bank), Target (Targoat), Casio (Catsio), FaceTime (MuzzleTime) and Foot Locker (Hoof Locker), to name a few.

 

Soundtrack

For this film’s score, Disney turned from their trusted Henry Jackman to Michael Giacchino, who had worked with them before but had not yet scored any of their animated classics. Previously, his work for Disney had included a Goofy short called How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre and two Prep & Landings specials, as well as The Ballad of Nessie short which accompanied Winnie the Pooh in theatres. His score here is enjoyable, featuring nods to various classic seventies cop shows, and was recorded by an 80-piece orchestra in November of 2015 with Tim Simonec conducting.

The film also makes brief use of some pop songs like many of the other modern ones do. When Judy returns to her tiny apartment after a trying day, she puts on her alarm clock’s radio and hears a string of totally inappropriate “downers”; Can’t Do Nuthin’ Right by Madisen Ward, Everybody Hurts by R.E.M., All By Myself by Eric Carmen and I, Loser by “Country” Winston Marshall.

Try Everything concert #1Try Everything concert #2

Of course, the song everyone remembers from Zootopia is Shakira’s pop hit, Try Everything, which she performs in-universe as Gazelle. The song was written by Sia and Stargate (Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen, and I chose it as my thirty-fourth favourite credits song in an earlier post. It’s an uplifting pop tune with a catchy refrain, if not a particular standout in the Disney canon, but it seems to have more to do with Judy’s personal attitude than with the film’s larger theme of overcoming prejudice. Try Everything is featured twice; once when Judy plays it on her way to Zootopia, and again over the credits as Gazelle performs it at a concert.

Judy's apology

The voice acting is of Disney’s usual high standard. Ginnifer Goodwin is fabulous as the wide-eyed optimist Judy Hopps; one scene in particular that I hugely admired was where Judy apologises to Nick after the disastrous press conference, which Goodwin genuinely cried while recording. She gives Judy a great deal of heart and makes her easy to root for, even when she makes mistakes. Jason Bateman’s smooth sarcasm also makes a perfect compliment for such a character and the two play off each other well – I can’t find any evidence as to whether they recorded lines together (it’s not common in animation), but I feel like they must have done for some scenes.

Among the many, many supporting actors, some of my favourites were Idris Elba as Bogo (he lends the gruff buffalo a much-needed degree of heart), Nate Torrence as Clawhauser (he’s having so much fun, it’s infectious), J. K. Simmons as Lionheart (I can’t help but hear Grunkle Ford), Fuschia! as Friedkin (so funny in her single appearance) and Maurice LaMarche as Mr. Big (he does an impressive Godfather impression). Octavia Spencer is always delightful too, of course, and I love her gentle performance as Mrs. Otterton.

 

Final Verdict

Zootopia was the first Disney animated film shown in domestic IMX theatres (in Disney Digital 3D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D) since Treasure Planet (2002), as well as the first since Tangled (2010) not to have an accompanying short. For its international releases, in addition to changing the species of the news anchor, the title itself was also tweaked; for instance, here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the film is known as Zootropolis. This is a play on the word “metropolis” rather than the original play on “utopia,” and it was done mainly because the Danish Givskud Zoo had already registered the name Zootopia in 2014 with the intention of switching to it by 2019. Germany is an exception to this; there, the film is known as Zoomania to avoid confusion with a children’s book from 2010 called “Zootopolis” by Kay Fischer.

Whatever title it played under, the film enjoyed good word-of-mouth from early viewers and quickly became a major hit. Critics adored it, praising its writing, animation, voice acting and subject matter, with only some limited criticism about the presentation of its racial allegories. The film opened to record-breaking box office in several countries and ended up grossing over $1 billion, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of the whole year and the thirty-second highest-grossing of all time, as well as becoming the fourth animated film to surpass the $1 billion mark and Disney’s highest earner since Frozen three years earlier. It became especially popular in Russia and China (the latter billed it as “Crazy Animal City”), where it is among both nations’ best-performing films. Zootopia also scooped up plenty of accolades, including the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Annie and Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Animated Feature (it was nominated for the BAFTA but lost to Kubo and the Two Strings). In summer 2016, it made its home media and digital download debut.

Despite the success, the film’s reputation wasn’t entirely unfettered. In early 2017, Gary L. Goldman’s company Esplanade Productions filed a lawsuit against Disney, with Goldman claiming that Disney had pinched the concept of the film from him. He claimed that he had twice pitched a very similar live-action project called Looney to them (in 2000 and 2009), which revolved around an animator creating a cartoon called “Zootopia.” Although Disney rejected the idea both times, Goldman claimed that the 2016 film utilised many of his ideas and characters; a Disney spokesperson later described the lawsuit as being “ridden with patently false allegations.” In the end, after months of debate, US District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald dismissed the case, stating, “…Goldman’s effort to make the plots of Looney and Zootopia seem similar were strained. All the purported similarities between the two works were themes, not plot points or sequences of events, that were too general to be protected by copyright law.” Well, there we have it then.

By June of 2016, Howard and Moore were already talking about a possible sequel to their hit, with Ginnifer Goodwin expressing an interest in reprising her role as Judy should they make one. However, nothing further has been heard since then. (I think a TV show could have a lot of potential, personally).

 

For me, Zootopia is definitely up there as one of the Revival’s best offerings; it’s well-written, thoughtful and challenging in the themes it presents to its viewers, and the strong story is backed up with Disney’s usual polished animation and stellar voice cast. The issues it portrays are very timely in today’s often-xenophobic world, and I think it’s important that media aimed at young viewers addresses such problems early, when there’s still time to prevent the development of future bigots. Many real children are sure to see themselves in Nick or Judy, particularly in the scenes of the bullying the characters undergo in their youth, and we can only hope that seeing those same characters stand up for themselves and prove the doubters wrong will inspire those children to do the same. Judy’s closing words about tolerance are especially powerful, and it’s not just children who would do well to heed them.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review, as always – I certainly had fun putting it together. If you’ve been here from the beginning, many thanks once again for reading, I really appreciate it. It’s been a long road and we’ve been travelling it together for over a year now, but next week, it all comes to an end with our latest feature: Moana. There will, of course, be further reviews after that, but our Polynesian princess will mark the end of the Disney canon for now, at least until Wreck-It Ralph returns in his sequel this November. Until next week, take care, and I hope to see you again soon for more!

My Rating – 5/5

 

 

References
I consulted the standard web sources for this review:
(I don’t own this) The Art of Zootopia (2016) by Jessica Julius
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48786765 – credit for poster

http://zootopia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Nick-collar_off.PNG – credit for cut scene image
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zootopia – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2948356/ – IMDB profile

 

 

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8 Replies to “Film Review: Zootopia / Zootropolis (2016)”

  1. As with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, this review requires me to get a whole lot off my chest about it, and some of it will need to be reserved for a later comment.

    For this one, I must admit, when I first heard the announcement of ZOOTOPIA, I had assumed, based on the “city of non-human animals” premise, that it would be more akin to CHICKEN LITTLE; imagine my pleasant surprise when I finally saw it.

    Taking into account the various subversions of preconceptions about animals, the hilarious banter between the characters, and the odd visual gag or two, I qualify this film as the funniest Disney Animated Classic since THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is another of those “loaded” ones with all the political undertones. I’ll look forward to that!

      I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, either, so it was a very pleasant surprise. Not one of my favourites, but I do enjoy the writing; it’s a step up from the standard of many of the other Revival films, that’s for sure.

      Like

    1. Hard to believe it’s almost over! At least I’ll be ending things on a good note – and then it’s on to the wider world of animation…

      Yeah, not a personal favourite, but still a solid entry to the canon

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having established my love for ZOOTOPIA (for its humor and its timely message), I must take this moment to admit that, with my being an amateur naturalist, there are a couple of things regarding the title city’s citizen makeup that bother me:

    1. The film ought to have included ALL orders of non-primate terrestrial mammals, but there are barely any marsupials visible, and the following orders were not shown at all: Chiroptera (bats), Tubulidentata (the aardvark), Macroscelidea (sengis, a.k.a. elephant shrews), Pholidota (pangolins), Monotremata (the egg-laying mammals– echidnas and platypi), and Dermoptera (colugos [arboreal gliding mammals from Southeast Asia]).

    2. Since the film is set in an alternate universe where humans never evolved, the population should include mammals that have gone extinct at the hands of humanity, including (but not limited to):

    -Bluebuck (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebuck)

    -Thylacine (a.k.a. marsupial wolf, Tasmanian wolf, or Tasmanian tiger)

    -Maclear’s rat

    -Quagga

    -Lesser bilby

    -Tarpan (a.k.a. European wild horse)

    For that matter, why couldn’t they have shown some of the rarer, more critically endangered species, like the kouprey (a forest-dwelling, wild bovine species from Southeast Asia), okapi, Javan rhino, painted wolf (a.ka. African wild dog), or saola (a small two-horned mammal discovered in Vietnam in 1992, with similarities to both antelopes and oxen)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe the omission of bats, at least, was explained as being because as the only true flying mammals, it would have been too awkward to work bat-oriented buildings and amenities into the city’s architecture just for them (dolphins and other marine mammals were omitted for the same reasons). For the other groups, though, there’s no excuse.

      It really would’ve been a great chance to showcase extinct and endangered species – I would’ve love to have seen a herd of Quagga characters, even in the background. And Javan rhinos are one of my favourite animals! If they could have only included one on the police force…

      Like

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