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2016 was an amazing year for animation. However, the best animated film of the year came out nearly a year ago. As good as everything else has been, Zootopia is hands down the movie that should win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Zootopia wasn't simply the best animated movie of 2016, it was one of the best movies of 2016 of any kind.
In any other year, any of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature would be worthy of winning the award. Kubo and the Two Strings is a visually stunning entry like we haven't seen from stop motion animation. My Life as A Zucchini deals with themes that we rarely see in animated films. The Red Turtle is mesmerizing in its minimalism and Moana gives us a hero's journey, unlike anything Disney has produced before. However, the film that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it nearly 12 months ago is the film that gives us most of these other elements in a single film.
On its face, Zootopia looks like what you'd expect to get from Disney. In a world without humans, animals have evolved to be bipedal, wear clothes, and live their lives not that unlike how people do today. There's a lot of jokes where products we know have been given animal names for comedic effect. Judy Hopps is a bunny who wants to be a police officer, a job generally held by larger animals. She perseveres and achieves that dream, but then must deal with the fact that the police force doesn't really want her around. She ends up paired with a con artist fox and what we get is essentially a Disney buddy cop movie. The mystery is compelling, the jokes land, and the characters are fun. Eventually, the mystery gets solved and our heroes live happily ever after.
Except, that's not actually how the movie ends, and it's really not what the movie is about.
Young children might take that much out of it, but for everybody else, there's a lot more going on here. Zootopia is a movie about racial profiling by police. It's about the sort of deeply embedded prejudice that can lurk inside anybody, even the most fervent ally. It's about not simply fighting bias, but the fact that in order to properly do so, you must first accept that it exists, a step that can be difficult for a lot of people. If this had been done as a live-action movie it would have been made as a heavy-handed drama, and those who could best use the lesson would likely have stayed away. The fact that the message is hidden in a story about anthropomorphic animals is as brilliant as it is unbelievable.
Zootopia is a movie that reveals new layers upon multiple viewings even to adults, the lessons that its younger viewers can learn seem nearly limitless.
Also, there's a joke where the word "cute" basically replaced the n-word. In a Disney movie. That's a thing that happens.
In much the same way that Frozen used its own princess tropes as a way to subvert expectations, Zootopia takes the idea that simply dreaming will lead to success and insists that hard work is also required. In some ways, it's one of Disney's most optimistic films, because it retains that optimism even after accepting that reality is maybe not as perfect as we wish it were. It believes the happy ending is possible, eventually.
Also, while Zootopia may not be full of the sweeping vistas of its fellow Disney brethren Moana, the fact is that the animation skill on display in Zootopia is no less impressive. The fur on the different animals feels like it's alive. It reacts to its environment in ways that we simply haven't seen before. The fact that Zootopia is made up of different environments allows the animators to show off their skill at creating each one. The city of Zootopia feels as full of life as any movie metropolis full of actual people.
There's a good chance that 10 years from now, several of this year's nominees for Best Animated Feature will have withstood the test of time. However, Zootopia will still stand alone as the most unique of the group. It's going to be the one that we remember because it took risks and told a very grown up story in a way that kids could relate to it. If for that reason alone Zootopia deserves to win the Academy Award on Sunday.