I know most people would point to Frozen (or Tangled if you're one of the cool kids, since Tangled is better than Frozen) as the movie that jump started Disney's most recent animation Renaissance, and that's fine. I won't disagree with you on that. But, when it comes to Disney's best animated movie in the past 15 years or so, I'm going to have to go with Zootopia, 100%.
Because unlike musicals such as Encanto, or Moana, or Frozen, which have excellent soundtracks to sing-along to, Zootopia is more in the Big Hero 6/Raya and the Last Dragon/Wreck-It-Ralph category in that they mostly have to stand on their stories alone. That said, unlike those aforementioned non-musical animated films, Zootopia stands the tallest out of all of Disney's animated outputs, both musical and non-musical alike, and I have five reasons why.
It Deals With Race Relations And Sexism In A Way That Is Digestible For Children
I once helped write an article about 15 movies that explore race and social justice for this website, and while I didn't include Zootopia (it would have felt out of place considering the other films I wrote about), I do genuinely feel that Zootopia tackles biting issues like racism and sexism in a way that is actually digestible for children.
Let me explain. Our heroine is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who dreams of one day becoming a police officer. That said, even though she graduates at the top of her class in police academy, due to her small size and the fact that she's a woman, she is assigned to menial work because the powers that be think she's too fragile to handle dangerous assignments. There's more. In the society of Zootopia, you have the so-called predators living with the prey, which is pretty much a shorthand description of every major city in America.
But, because conflict is necessary in all stories, Judy, who would be deemed as prey, finds herself paired up with a "predator" named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who's a con-artist fox. In Zootopia, all foxes are seen as thieves, and Nick fits the description since he is, in fact, a fox. But, we learn in a flashback that Nick only takes on that con-artist role since society has already assigned it to him since childhood, and in that way, he's become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a black man who has gotten "You don't act like other Black people" practically all my life (as if all Black people are supposed to act a certain way), stuff like that resonates with me in a BIG way, and kudos to Disney for even daring to tackle something as touchy as race relations in a children's movie. Bravo.
It Also Deals With The Effects Of Drugs On A Community
It doesn't stop with race relations or sexism, though, since Zootopia also shows the effects of drugs on a community. I'm of course talking about the night howler serum that actually turns animals savage. Don't believe me that Disney would blatantly reference drug use in their children's movie? Well, then what do you make of the Breaking Bad homage in Zootopia's many pop culture references?
In the film, we see a society that is actually falling apart at the seams due to this drug problem, which nobody (including the audience) really knows about until about midway through the film when we find out that the predator mammals aren't just suddenly turning savage out of nowhere, but are instead being drugged and sent into a frenzy. In this way, we're actually getting commentary on how the police force is losing in its battle against drugs, and if that's not smart writing, then I don't know what is.
Its World Is Fully Fleshed Out In A Way That Could Lead To Several Stories
The world of Zootopia is just that - a world. I've discussed how I think Pixar is currently in its golden age with films like Turning Red, and Soul, but Zootopia is that rare Disney Animated film that I actually think goes toe-to-toe with the likes of the expansive world-building of Pixar, as the city of Zootopia truly feels lived in and alive.
And, isn't that what every Pixar movie manages to do? Create life out of the seemingly mundane? Well, Zootopia took something as common as anthropomorphic animals, threw them into a city together, and somehow, they made it feel so alive and fresh that I could envision seeing several different stories being told in this universe. Seriously, I've seen animals walking and talking in cartoons my entire life, but none of them feel as fleshed-out and alive as they do in Zootopia, and that is truly saying something.
And Yet, It Never Got A Sequel, Which Actually Benefits The Film
Unlike Frozen II, or Ralph Breaks the Internet, we only got one Zootopia movie, and I think that makes it feel especially unique. Because, as I mentioned in the last section, the world of Zootopia is vast, and I feel like multiple stories could be told in this universe.
And yet, they weren't. Instead, we got a buddy cop story with an unlikely pairing (as all good buddy cop narratives should be) that is told in one concise story. I've mentioned it before on this site, but Dredd is my favorite comic book movie, and it's mostly because it's just a day-in-the-life tale with little pomp and circumstance, and I feel the same way about Zootopia. Disney could probably milk several more movies out of this universe, and yet, they didn't.
I think that's really great. We're supposed to be getting some Disney+ series called Zootopia+ in the near-future, which I'll definitely check out, but I feel like Disney really could have overdone it with another movie, and I'm glad that they didn't. That makes this single story even stronger because it was just one-and-done.
It's Just An Overall Excellent Story With A Phenomenal Cast
Lastly, Zootopia is just an excellent story, with a phenomenal cast of voice actors, which, aside from Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, also includes Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, and Shakira, just to name a few.
As I already mentioned, the story is just top notch. I love Raya and the Last Dragon and its message that we need to stop judging people by misconceptions that we've already formed about them, but I feel like Zootopia captured a similar message in a way that was actually fun. In comparison, look at a movie like the recent Bad Guys, which our very own Eric Eisenberg called "Zootopia without the nuance." By looking at that review, I think you can ascertain just why Zootopia is so great - it actually has nuance! Which is more than I can say for most movies coming out these days, both animated and non-animated alike.
What do you think is the greatest recent Disney animated film? For more news on all things Disney, make sure to swing by here often.
Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
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