Early on, within Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”, Alice, with her wide-eyed child-like wonder, glances at the mirror with hopes of catching a glimpse of a fantastic world that secretly exists parallel to her own. What she finds, though, is not any sort of weird enchanting reality that somehow lives up to her expectations; it is something far more remarkable, perplexing, and intriguing. Alice sees a world that is exactly like the one in which she inhabits: the same cracking fireplace, the same lazy cat, the same neat bed, the same curious girl, the same familiar half-open door that reveals a hallway that looks pretty much like the one that leads into her room, and – one can conclude – the same limitations.
When leaving the confines of their homes to watch a movie produced inside the Walt Disney Animation Studios, audiences tend to enter the theater and look at the screen in pretty much the same way little Alice stares at her mirror. Their wish is to come across a universe that floats some miles above reality and that lifts their hearts to a similar height. It is a reasonable urge; after all, this is a company that has, during the past few years, modernized the telling of fairy tales in Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen (the first through its setting, the second through its tone, and the latter through its message); showed that a classic children’s story can still succeed as long as it has a soul in Winnie the Pooh; acknowledged and paid great respects to the contemporary phenomenon of videogames in Wreck-It Ralph; and tackled the superhero realm with a great dash of sensitivity in Big Hero 6.
As Alice finds out, however, having one’s prospects completely subverted is not inherently bad; it can, actually, be even more delightful than having those hopes fulfilled. Sometimes, finding what we are not looking for is far more rewarding than encountering precisely what we wanted. Zootopia, the latest on a line of astonishing Disney animated features, is to audiences – in more than one way – what the titular looking-glass is to the inquisitive young Alice. Not just because it is distant from what a regular spectator has come to anticipate regarding a Disney movie, but because by refusing to show the purely whimsical and sugar-coated world people come in wishing to see, Zootopia ends up projecting a frightening accurate portrayal of the world that surrounds us: the same painful issues, the same pitiful narrow-mindedness, the same frail morals, and the same unscrupulous schemes that lead into even bigger crimes.
On its surface Zootopia may initially come off as a movie produced on auto-pilot; after all, it takes the overutilized concept of anthropomorphic animals as its basis. However, Disney employs a simple and effective trick here: it throws those creatures with human-like traits neither in a standard wild scenario, as Madagascar, Finding Nemo, and many others have done; nor in some unrealistic setting, such as the ones depicted in Kung Fun Panda and The Rescuers. The beasts of Zootopia are, instead, transported to an average contemporary city with opportunities, overpopulation, politicians, crime, and social issues. From that starting point, the writers proceed to have a field day building what is the most thought-provoking script to ever walk out of Burbank.
As it turns out, “contemporary” is the key word to the success of Zootopia. The whole movie works as a modernized fable where the lives of animals inside the city and the many occurrences displayed are frighteningly accurate allegories to our own world and many of the topics that are currently in vogue, such as invariably harmful and dangerous stereotypes, racism, sexism, conformism, corruption, the oversimplification of matters that are astoundingly complex, shallow and misguided labels, and the media’s capacity to create widespread hysteria and broadcast biased opinions as unshakable facts.
It all sounds too heavy, and – in a very successful and positive way – it does carry enough of a punch to extract a few gasps from the audience, but Zootopia never overlooks the fact it is a Disney animation, and so its plot is ambivalent enough to also come off as a standard tale of overcoming challenges and the transforming power of love and friendship. Judy Hopps is a bunny born in the rural district of Bunnyburrow, and even though it is traditional for her species to focus on the peaceful activity of planting and harvesting crops, Judy chooses early on – upon witnessing the unfair way in which bullies push their victims around – to become a police officer in Zootopia, a place that, according to Judy’s own optimistic outlook, allows beings to become whatever they want to be.
Due to the world’s pettiness, Judy’s decision is often contested: her parents say bunnies should never be police officers because of their frailty; some of her peers mock her dreams; and, even after getting the best grades in the police academy, Judy’s capacity is questioned by her bosses, who are infuriated by the notion a bunny did become a police officer and, therefore, assign her to handing out parking tickets. Judy’s idealism itself suffers quite a blow when Zootopia reveals itself as a city where stupid generalizations abound: foxes, for example, are seen as deceitful; and many of the species are expected to behave in a certain way, causing a giant wave of stereotypes and prejudices that surface when animals walk out of the path that society determines they follow.
That boiling pot overflows when a few predators start disappearing or suddenly show wild behavior, a nature that was believed to be long-gone; reserved to the world’s prehistoric era. Naturally, Judy is – much to the frustration of her bosses – thrown in the midst of that engaging investigation by accident, and so she sets out to uncover the truth that lies behind those reported kidnappings and, consequently, prove herself worthy of her badge.
As the driving force of the movie, the whodunit story is a resounding success. Firstly, it is incredibly smart and well-written, taking full advantage of the many questions raised by the movie to deliver a rock-solid detective story. Secondly, the fact that Judy ends up traveling all across the city while going after valuable clues is perfect for the full exposition of Zootopia as a setting; the incredible inventiveness Disney derived from the concept of an animal metropolis – including different biomes such as a tundra, a desert, and a rainforest that are fully integrated into the urban theme – is thoroughly explored, and the creativity in display is bound to awe both adults and children. Finally, given the bunny’s constant travels between points, she comes into contact with a remarkable assortment of characters from varied species that reveal portions of the complex social fabric that exists in Zootopia while allowing Disney to point fingers towards various relevant issues.
For all of its qualities, Zootopia does have a couple of issues. Still, they are nothing but minor nitpicks. For starters, the considerable size of the complex investigation, one that is filled with twists and turns, paired up with the limited running time imposed on animated flicks, causes some of the happenings to take place in too close succession to one another, therefore causing the movie to occasionally seem like a constant fetch-quest through Zootopia. Moreover, the valuable and relevant messages the film delivers are, most of the times, too blatant, leaving no room for subtleties. While such a characteristic is positive because it allows even kids to grasp those ideas, it is also partially negative because beauty is frequently found in a light delivery instead of in blatant preaching.
In the end, though, Zootopia is nothing short of impressive. It gets all compliments usual Disney classics achieve: it is funny, enchanting, visually stunning, highly emotional, universally likable, and fun. At the same time, it is a dot far out of the curve for it shows Disney tackling an animation while being armed with a politically engaged soul. It forces audiences to take a good look at the mirror and analyze themselves, their world, their problems, their minds, and their reasoning. Regardless of whether one happens to see their image reflected on the looking-glass, or to simply identify the damage that certain lines of thought and actions can provoke, Zootopia succeeds because it raises awareness and fosters discussions; it is a movie that is fully aware of the world in which it exists and takes a fair shot at addressing its most important issues. Like little Alice, what we see beyond the mirror – a reflection of our world, is an alluring new perspective of problems we have grown used to; and that is what makes it so overwhelmingly revealing.