Nuggets of Wisdom

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

5 Reasons We Love Zootopia

Zootopia quickly became the surprise animated hit of 2016. What was supposed to be Disney's B-movie to its A-movie later this year, Moana, managed to become an animated blockbuster in its own right. Earning more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide, this movie broke box office record after record, becoming the second highest grossing original film of the year and fourth highest grossing animated movie of all time. But was this buddy cop movie (or rather, "bunny cop" movie) truly deserving of this level of success, or was its box office hit merely due to it being the only animated movie in March? Here are five reasons why we truly love Zootopia:

#1: Disney’s Most Impressive Animated Film

Nearly one decade prior to Zootopia, Disney released its very first digitally-animated film, which ironically was also about walking, talking animals, Chicken Little. It wasn’t that good. Not only was the overall story weak (if not downright mean-spirited), but the digital animation was subpar compared to similar films by Pixar and Dreamworks. Both the rubbery animation and glossy character designs showed that this was Disney’s first attempt at digital animation without the aid of Pixar, and it was a weak first attempt!

However, as the old saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And so Disney did try and try again, improving with each and every new film, from its award-winning Tangled and Frozen, to its current film, Zootopia, which is by far Disney’s most visually impressive, if not technologically impressive, film to date.

From traveling to Kenya to study animals up close and personal, to developing new ground-breaking software to animate walk motions and fur textures, Disney animators put a lot of effort into making this film as visually appealing as possible. From the tallest building, to the smallest background character, this film exhibits a close attention to detail, no matter how small, that sets it apart from other movies to date.

There is so much detail in these characters that you can count every single strand of hair on them—quite literally! Disney animators created new innovative software to customize each and every single hair, right down to their very root, on each and every character. By comparison, as Channel Frederator revealed, Frozen’s Elsa has about 480,000 strands in her hair, which is roughly the same number that a small mouse has in this movie, while a giraffe has about 9 million.

The end result are characters whose fur appears so realistic that you have to restrain yourself from reaching through the screen and petting them. (Especially the sheep. Touching a sheep’s wool is a big no-no!) Such attention to detail makes the film worth watching over and over again simply to spot the details you may have missed before.

While this film is evidently Disney’s most visually and technologically impressive film, animation can only take a film so far, and would otherwise be nothing if it weren’t for the story and characters. Which leads me to my remaining points:

#2: Very Tight Well-Written Story

Stop me if you heard this story before: a rookie cop fresh out of the police academy struggles to work her way up the police department ladder by tackling the biggest case in history—STOP!

Yes, Zootopia plot isn’t exactly original. Then again, this movie was made by the same company who’s famous for repackaging fairy tales from your childhood and passing them off as fresh and original. That’s what makes Disney great: it takes stories we’ve all heard countless times before and re-imagines them in new and creative ways.

In the case of Zootopia, not only does it take a buddy cop plotline and simplify it to the point where preschoolers can easily follow it, but also makes the story complex enough so that the entire premise is part of a much larger story.

No kidding! Just when it appears as though the main mystery is solved and the case is closed, you peer at your watch and realize that there’s more than half an hour’s worth of screen time left, leaving you exclaiming, “wait, there’s more?!?”

Another admirable aspect of the movie is how it manages to tie together most of its plot elements in a closely-knit web, ensuring that not one single plot thread is left dangling. No little detail is superfluous. Everything is connected to the bigger picture.

For example, during a chase scene at the very start of the movie, Judy Hopps hunts down a petty thief who stole a bag of onions, and, in the process of doing so, she manages to save a shrew from being crushed to death by a giant donut. In a lesser movie, this scene would have been a one-off moment, but not here. Not only do we later discover that the alleged “onions” were part of a greater mystery, but the shrew Judy saved ends up saving both her and Nick Wilde later on in the movie.

In sum, Zootopia’s story, while not the most original, is well-written. But then, when has Disney ever released a film that wasn’t well-written? Well, other than The Black Cauldron? Or Chicken Little? Or Home on the Range? Or most direct-to-DVD sequels. (Hey! I said “most.” Lion King 2 is clearly an exception!)

#3: Judy Hopps, The Feminist Optimist

2016 proves to be the year women dominate cinema, with plenty of movies starring strong female protagonists. But while most movies feature women who are either gender-swapped versions of more popular male characters (Ghostbusters), or who are otherwise great characters playing second fiddle to their male counterparts (Wonder Woman in Batman Vs. Superman), Zootopia is an original movie with an original female lead.

Not only that, but she’s one of the very few female leads in a non-Pixar animated Disney movie not to be a princess, which is a breath of fresh air in a company famously dominated by pink dress-wearing royalty. (And before you say anything, Yes, technically, Mulan was the first non-princess Disney female lead, but she no longer counts now that she's an official Disney princess.)

Judy Hopps is a rough and tumble bunny who dreams of becoming a police officer in a world where rabbits normally aren’t cops (a parallel to the real world where very few women are cops). She faces many obstacles and challenges along the way, but she never lets them stop her from pursuing her dream.

When her friends and family doubt her, she proves them wrong and goes on to attend the police academy. When her exams prove difficult, she strives to do her best until she finally graduates top of her class. When she’s given the rookie position of meter maid, she proves her worth as a cop by being the best meter maid she can be. And when she accepts the biggest case in history with an obscene deadline of 48 hours, she works hard to crack the case despite all odds against her.

The only time in the movie where she does eventually give up (mild spoiler!) is when she’s faced with something that she’s not unable to do, but rather, unwilling to do because it goes against her own personal moral code. Otherwise, no matter what challenge she faces, she faces it with an upbeat attitude best emphasized by the movie’s song, “Try Everything.”

Surprisingly enough, when the movie was in development, Judy was not going to be the main character. Instead, the sly fox Nick Wilde was going to be the lead, with the movie focused on his otherwise cynical outlook on the city of Zootopia. Disney inevitably went against this decision and cast the more optimistic Judy Hopps as the main focus.

The end result is an empowered female character willing to tear down barriers (and even glass ceilings) to meet her goals all while maintaining an optimistic can-do attitude, thus providing a positive role model to children, especially little girls.

#4: Judy And Nick's Purely Platonic Relationship

Judy Hopps may be the star of the movie, but her performance would be nothing without the other half of her comedic duo, Nick Wilde. After all, what's a buddy cop movie without, well, a cop and her buddy?

While Judy is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (quite literally!) optimist who takes her job seriously, Nick is the world-worn cynic who's everything but serious. Watching these two polar opposites clash with each other not only makes for comedic fodder, but much needed character foil for each other.

Complicating their on-screen relationship even further is how it was created through sheer reluctance. Judy only requires Nick because he's the sole eyewitness of the case she needs to crack, while Nick is only helping her because she blackmailed him into doing so. As such, while these two are working for a common goal, each of them manages to purposely trip each other up on occasion. (Remember the hilarious DMV scene where Nick did everything he could to stall much to Judy's chagrin?)

Even then, the two manage to develop genuine on-screen chemistry and trust in one other, making the emotions surrounding their breakup and inevitable reunion later in the film all the more genuine. (Don't lie! You felt your heartbreak when you saw Judy reach for the pepper spray, and you felt it mend back together again when you saw them hug.)

Perhaps most interesting about their relationship is how it remains strictly platonic throughout the film. While most movies demand that their male and female lead hookup by the end, Nick and Judy remain just friends, and with the exception of a friendly embrace and Nick's quip of "you know you love me," don't really show any romantic feelings toward one another.

Never since Dory and Marlin in Finding Nemo has there been such an opposite sex duo whose on-screen relationship never devolved into romance, which is quite a breath of fresh air for a company who's infamous for making its male and female leads tie the knot by the end.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the fans from shipping the two. That includes me. What can I say? Judy/Nick forever!

#5: Intersectional Prejudice

Zootopia is an optimistic film that inspires people to always pursue their dreams, regardless of whatever obstacles face them. By far, the biggest obstacle the movie addresses is prejudice. Disney is by no means a stranger to discussing prejudice, but while previous films such as Hunchback of Notre Dame may have addressed it from a personal angle of “don’t judge a book by its cover”, Zootopia addresses it from a more systematic and institutional level, making the lesson all the more applicable to the real world, and all the more timely in this current political climate.

Zootopia is set in a world where predators once hunted prey and prey lived in fear of predators. Both classes of animals inevitably learned to set aside their differences and live together in harmony. The city which the movie is named after was built on this very principle of diversity; but despite being a diverse and progressive “utopian” city where predator and prey alike coexist, the residents themselves still harbor a level of prejudice towards one another. Ironically enough, while predators once oppressed prey, they now find themselves outnumbered by the prey and on the receiving end of suspicion and distrust (almost “reverse-speciesism”, if you will), with this prejudice eventually becoming exploited by political powers later on in the film.

Both Judy and Nick themselves, despite coming from different classes, were the target of prejudice. Judy was demeaned by her peers (and even her own family) for wanting to pursue a career not normally held by rabbits, and even gets bullied by predators for it, leaving her with a traumatic experience that made her develop a prejudice towards them, specifically foxes.

Nick was similarly bullied for being a predator and wanting to pursue an interest not normally followed by predators such as himself; but while Judy may have overcome the prejudice she received in order to pursue her dreams, Nick internalized his prejudice, causing him to conform to the stereotype that society had forced upon him. Both characters experience prejudice, and both find ways to rise above it, whether it’s the prejudice they face, they have themselves, or even internalize.

Such intersectionality is something often lacking in media, if not socio-political discourse. While most people (most notoriously, social justice warriors) view prejudice such as racism as being a one-way street and in terms that are, quite literally, black-and-white, this movie offers a much more nuanced view, showing that anyone can be prejudiced, even if they consider themselves non-prejudicial, or even if they've been the victim of prejudice themselves. Regardless of if you’re black or white, man or woman, straight or gay, or in the case of this movie, predator or prey, everyone has the capacity of harboring prejudice, and it’s up to each of us as individuals to overcome it.

In a time when certain politicians are claiming that “all Muslims are terrorists” and “all Mexicans are criminals”, and when on-line activists insist that “all men are rapists” and “only white people can be racist”, Zootopia offers a lesson in both prejudice and intersectionality that is much needed today, but unfortunately, may very well be overlooked.