It's hard to know how much to fault a film directed at kids for a lack of subtlety. While any art should have a point of view, a lighter touch when it comes to driving that point home is almost always a greater-making quality for works aimed at more mature audiences. But while kids tend to be brighter and more perceptive than many shows and films aimed at them give them credit for, they're still typically less sophisticated than their adult counterparts. That warrants a certain amount of hand-holding, a certain degree of signposting, and a certain amount of directness that might not be so easily excused in art that is intended for adults.
Which is to say that I was disappointed at how Zootopia's complex, nuanced exploration of issues of race, sex, and prejudices of all stripes was hindered by the film's propensity to spell out all of its themes and points in blunt and obvious terms. The result is a film that takes a very interesting look at how people face discouragement because of how they were born or who they are, and saddles it with a parental figure specifically recommending that the protagonist "give up on her dreams and settle." It cannily explores the ways in which the "you can be whatever you want to be" mantra of the day is more aspirational than realistic but mires the point in a trite closing voice over. It takes a multifaceted view on race and other facets of identity but often examines that through on-the-nose dialogue.
In most films, that would be the pits, but there's a sense in which these messages are important enough that it feels more okay for the film to turn subtext into text when delivering it to kids. The catch is that Zootopia is a Disney film, which means it's a corporate cousin with the collective works of Pixar, which in everything from the original Toy Story to Inside Out manage to convey these sorts of big, if generally less politically-charged ideas without being so overt or didactic about it. It can be done, and for all of Zootopia's successes, its failure to match its fellow Disney Corporate Umbrella brethren in terms of the deftness with which it communicates its ideas keeps it a cut below.
That's a shame, because there's a lot to like about Zootopia. Its story of a barrier-breaking young rabbit named Judy Hops who wants to be a police officer, in a world where "predators" and "prey" are limited by those designations and the cultural baggage that comes with them, had the potential to be a bog-standard lesson about how bigots are bad and overcoming adversity is good. Instead, the film has the gumption to explore how prejudice is not some abject boogeyman that can be solved by locking away the bad guys, but is, rather, a subtler, more widespread and pernicious ill that even our fearless, put-upon hero has to combat within herself. The plot, which involves Judy teaming up with a con-artist fox to solve a missing persons case that reveals a deeper conspiracy, is enough to move the film along while providing enough space for it to dig into its themes and let its colorful characters loose.
Those characters help to distract from the somewhat clunky dialogue and less-than-gentle reminders as to What The Lesson Is. Hops herself is Leslie Knope made lapine, and her boundless energy, optimism, and enthusiasm keeps the tempo of the film up. Her foil and eventual brother-in-arms, Nick Wilde, works as a cynical counterpart, with his dry realism and slick take on Zootopia running counter to Judy's chipper, law and order mentality. Of course, the two end up finding common ground, and after a few minor adventures and tearful backstories later, realizes the ways in which they've wronged and care for one another. But while their road to that point is predictable, the personality of the characters and the performances makes it enjoyable. And the rest of the city, whether it's rural rabbits voiced by comic pros or a maned mayor given the bombast of J.K. Simmons or the inimitable Idris Elba as a steely buffalo police chief, feels alive with distinct characters that make the universe of the film feel appropriately diverse and well-populated.
It's also a film that gets a lot of the little details right. These range from world-building elements, like the Zootopia trains having multiple compartments that vary by size which works as a nice salve to the general implausibility how this city and society would work, to smaller thematic notes, like Nick wanting to feel the sheep assistant mayor's hair, which works as a quiet nod to real life cross-racial interactions. For as heavy-handed as the film can get, those moments create a lived-in feel for Zootopia and help explain the film's setting and the in-group/out-group dynamics at the core of the film better than any exposition or grand statement could.
That world, and that premise, are Zootopia's greatest asset. While making a film for children can lead to spoon-feeding the point to them, it can also allow for a sense of whimsy and imagination in exploring complicated ideas that grown ups tend to bristle that. Filtering the experience of sexism, racism, and other types of bias great and small through the lens of the animal kingdom not only serves to make the film's themes more attractive to a young audience, but it creates a certain distance between the viewer and their preconceived notions about the issue that, like the best speculative fiction, help to lay bare the assumptions and absurdity that undergird the real life issues at play. Making a movie about institutional prejudices through talking, funny animals is disarming, in a way that helps those themes land with all audiences.
That's why the lack of subtlety in the dialogue and the point behind the film are so disappointing the final tally. Zootopia is a movie with so much going for it. It's lovely to have a film that tackles the issues of bias in such a novel and complex way. It's great to a see another colorful world given life under the auspices of Disney's animation and design teams. And it's wonderful to welcome another collection of bright, fun characters into the pantheon with enough depth to make them more than just fodder for lunchboxes. It's just unfortunate that all of those great qualities get subsumed in the rote, occasionally even ham-fisted way in which Zootopia delivers them and its important message.