Disney's track record as of late has given a newfound appreciation of the studio's work and style to a world that had grown exhausted by their inability to make anything worthwhile in a cinematic landscape overrun by newcomers such as Pixar, Dreamworks, and Blue Sky making films of higher popularity (and usually quality) than anything they were making in the 2000s. The early years of the decade saw the release of films that, while maintaining a strong cult following, have never reached the universal success of their contemporaries, and the films that followed have been outright forgotten by most people. In 2009, this began to change with the release of The Princess and the Frog, a film that, despite a strong critical response and a generally positive reaction from most audiences, did not receive much widespread attention. What this did do, however, was revitalize Disney both creatively and popularly. Tangled, released the following year, started a second so-called Disney Renaissance alongside The Princess and the Frog, which only grew with 2012's Wreck-It-Ralph, a work of Generation X nostalgia that somehow turned out even better than the marketing made it out to be. Despite all this growing buzz and success, however, it wasn't until 2013 that a Disney film returned to being as much of a cultural event as it was in the 90s with the release of Frozen, a movie that was downright inescapable for quite some time following its release and became an instant classic in the Disney oeuvre.
In the wake of all this, I admittedly feel as though Disney has become something that gets liked a bit too much by most people. Of the films I listed, Wreck-It-Ralph is the only one that is truly great overall, even if all of them are very good. The issue lies in the idea that a film is inherently good now because it is a Disney movie, and now people aren't going to notice the difference between these movies and something like 2014's Big Hero 6, a solid, if not very poorly written, film that, as a result of increased love of all things Disney, became a universally acclaimed film that was only ever criticized for not being quite as good as Frozen. The danger of popularity is that it puts blinders on anyone willing to buy into it, making me very hesitant to buy into the hype surrounding the latest film from the studio, Zootopia, which, at the moment of writing, hold an astounding 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After having seen the film, however, I can truly understand the immense popularity, as Zootopia is fantastic.
The film is set in the titular city in which animals of all kinds have evolved to lose their violent, predatory instincts and coexist in a society. Judy Hopps has become the first rabbit police officer in a system designed for larger, stronger animals. The setup sounds like a standard fish-out-of-water story, but it is supremely well-executed thematically. Prior to arriving at the police station for the first time, she (and the audience) is treated to a gorgeous montage sequence establishing the setting through shots of an active, multi-faceted civilization where animals are all realistically going about their day in a way that people conceivably would in this city. There are doors of various sizes for accessibility from each species. A food stand has a tube for a giraffe to get what it bought easily. The city has multiple districts for species that live in different ecosystems. Every detail is designed in such a way that shows that the creators of the film have actually thought about the way the world works and have designed its setting to make sense for the narrative. When Judy arrives at her job, however, this multi-cultural integration is absent as she needs to adapt to a system designed for larger, stronger creatures. She needs to climb onto a chair that is much taller than her, and she ends up being relegated to parking duty as a result of prejudice against her. Rather than merely telling the audience its morals, it reveals them via juxtaposition of emotions and world-building elements and subconsciously educates the viewer before becoming more blatant with its themes. In this story about ingrained racism and cultural divides, it shows that prejudice is often unintentional and subtle, a legitimately important message to the young children for whom the movie was designed that might actually teach them something beyond merely telling them to be accepting of all people like a more standard children's film would do.
This is a brief sequence, however, and the majority of the film explores this theme more directly through interactions between Judy and a petty criminal named Nick Wilde, a fox who makes a living outside of the law. The two have been forced together by an attempt to solve the case of a missing otter, and what follows works as a standard Odd Couple scenario concerning their very different natures and growing appreciation for one another, but, again, this is executed very well thematically, as this setup works perfectly for expressing the classic message that the story presents. Judy's parents have expressed worry towards the idea of their daughter being around dangerous predators, foxes in particular. She, being young and progressive, protests their outdated ideology, but it remains with her subconsciously as she carries around the fox repellent they gave her just to be safe. Again, this naturally presents the ideas of the film by portraying the persistence of racism rather than merely stating it.
That's not to say that Zootopia is a film that exists to moralize or preach to the audience. It is a movie with far more maturity than that, and it definitely focuses on being a good film first and foremost. The film has consistently gorgeous visual design, showing an active, bustling city full of motion even beyond the obvious details, Every background character moves like a real person with an actual destination and personality. The use of multiple ecosystems making up the setting is a legitimately ingenious decision that creates the possibility for multiple settings, including a dense jungle and a small area that houses rodents in which the lead characters are the size of giants. It takes the location and goes somewhere interesting with it, becoming imaginative and distinct with a fairly standard concept. The sense of humor throughout the film is also generally clever and genuinely funny. One particularly memorable sequence concerns a DMV run by sloths, which uses an incredibly clichéd and unoriginal joke about the DMV in a way that intelligently utilizes the concept unique to the film.
The success of Zootopia lies less in what it does and more in what it doesn't do. It never talks down to its audience. It never feels cynical or manufactured. It never lacks imagination. And, to be fair, this is true for all of the modern Disney films. However, there is something vivid and real in this movie that I never saw in Frozen or Big Hero 6. There is a spark of beauty that lets this movie glow just a little brighter than Disney's other recent films. It's more subtle, more mature, more intelligent, and, perhaps most important, more fun.