Sure, this scruffy tale works perfectly fine as a kids’ picture, from the doll-ready designs to winking puns to themes common to so many animated movies — including the standard emotional troika of self-empowerment, self-identity and self-belief. In fact, it’s precisely because the moppet audience can remain entertained — all while blissfully oblivious to the adult meta-narrative — that “Zootopia” should rapidly add to its record-setting domestic debut of $75-million (best ever for Disney Animation, edging even “Frozen”).
Yet the “PG” in this film’s rating could stand for “Political Guidance.” Because the entire “whodunit” — as in so many a film noir tale (and “Zootopia” does visually nod to noir) — turns on discovering the truth about the least likely suspect. Sure, this movie is expertly pitched as a “buddy cop comedy,” so you might think that institutional corruption sits with the police honchos, in true Eastwood/”Gauntlet” style. But in 2016, “Zootopia” makes sure its evil mastermind instead sits close to the seat of governmental power.
Yes, the villain is a politician. And what strikes as modern commentary is that the film’s secret baddie foments divisiveness among the populace for political gain and power. In fact, one savvy message from the film becomes: If you can anger the electorate through divisiveness and trumped-up claims of crisis, you can then stoke belief that you are the right leader to solve these issues. In other words: To light this public powderkeg of emotional manipulation, fear is the fuse and incendiary political rhetoric is the struck match.
And by tale’s end, we clearly understand why this anthropomorphic metropolis, as metaphor, is a true governmental “Zoo.”
Now, it’s worth noting that “Zootopia” touches on “smaller” sociopolitical elements, such as government-mandated job programs (a “mammal-inclusion” program) and government-bureaucracy ineptitude (the sloth-staffed DMV set piece plays like a direct, knowing homage to Bob & Ray’s vintage “Slow Talkers” routine).
But it’s the last, cutting twist involving the power-hungry con artist as two-faced political operative that delivers the biggest depth-charge in a campaign year. When the film’s press-conference pronouncements begin to sound eerily like TV headline “crawls” — as “Zootopia” leaders and the message-repeating media scare people into fearing their neighbors because they’re “different” — it’s not just the appearance of a Wolf or Fox that distinctly reminds “Zootopia” viewers of 24-hour cable news channels.
Close your eyes, in fact, and you might swear you’re hearing the shameless fear-mongering of, well…an American presidential debate.
So to be clear: “Zootopia” works well and good as simply a cuddly CGI picture in which some fuzzy creatures suit up in uniform as “the fuzz.” It’s just plain delightful.
But when the film’s animal villain ultimately tries to pull the rhetorical wool over our eyes, the political point seems tailor-made for 2016 — and “Zootopia’s” satire feels cut from the cloth of our modern campaign discourse.