I’m going to break my overview of Zootopia into five parts:How it succeeds as a social critique, how it succeeds as science fiction, how it succeeds as an animated film, then -- because this part will be spoilericious – after the jump how perfectly plotted it is, then finally for the most masochistic of you, the theological implications.
Shall we begin?
This would make a perfect double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8.
Like The Hateful 8, Zootopia is at its heart a sincere and surprisingly profound meditation on prejudice and ethnic stereotypes in contemporary society.
Unlike The Hateful 8, Zootopia is afforded the luxury of being an animal fable, and while certain parallels are evident between its characters and ethnic stereotypes in modern day America, there are no one-to-one analogies.
The Hateful 8, on the other hand, even though it is apparently set in the alternate Tarantino universe, can’t avoid very specific comparisons among and between various ethnicities in the US today.
The Hateful 8 is a hard film to digest. As noted, it is Tarantino’s most significant film to date, but it’s also his least successful one.
That’s because there is no cushion between the audience and the ugliness it portrays, there is no distancing that lets people identify-with-yet-pretend-they-aren’t exactly like the characters seen on the screen.
Zootopia, conversely, has the luxury of being an animated animal fable, so audiences can nod sagely in recognition yet at the same time not feel a condemning “thou art the man” finger pointed at them.
Zootopia also lets the viewer off the hook insofar as those few scenes in which the audience recognizes themselves are quickly offset by those same characters doing something virtuous or by non-ethnic comedy.
What Zootopia does brilliantly is to admit there are friction points among us all, and that not every body gets along well with everybody else.
But it also points out that, while life is messy, it is also full of options, and just because one particular path is blocked does not mean there isn’t a way to the ultimate destination.
If The Hateful 8 tells us we must pay for our sins before the healing begins, Zootopia tells us we can forgive the sins of others and ask forgiveness for ourselves.
Zootopia as science fiction:
The basic premise is this: Thousands of years ago animals -- predators and prey -- found a way of living peacefully with one another and, because there was no longer disruptive hunting preventing the advancement of societies and science, the world became a better / cleaner / happier place.
The world realized from that premise is flawlessly executed. Every imaginable detail is either demonstrated or alluded to, and everything seems to fit.
In a perfect exampled of the old dictum, “He who handwaviums least, handwaviums best”, Zootopia doesn’t have to explain every single little detail of its world.
Something is presented to us and we simply roll with it. “Of course that’s the way they’d do it” even when five minutes of thought would make us realize what we’ve just seen actually opens can after can of worms.
The trick to writing good sci-fi is not to explain each and every thing but to let the audience presume there is an explanation for each and everything.
The world building in Zootopia is great, a perfect combination of advanced CGI technology and clever human ideas. It looks and feels real enough for us to accept it without thought, and that acceptance is what makes the powerful impact of Zootopia’s social comment possible.
Zootopia as an animated film:
This may be the best animated film ever.
I’m talking Ghost In The Shell quality.
Technically it is flawless. The character animation is great, the world building superb, the voice acting just about the best ever heard.
Snow White and Pinocchio and Dumbo are great, but they can’t hold a candle to this.
This is Wizard Of Oz perfection and timelessness, and like the quest for the ruby slippers, so much more complex and enriching than Disney films of the same era.
And more importantly, it’s a demonstration of what animated films do so much better than live action movies: Properly executed, they can engage audiences of all levels and all backgrounds better and more effortlessly that comparable live action films.
Zootopia is a parody of classic 1980s buddy-cop movies, but it is so much better than Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours or Die Hard or The Last Boy Scout.
Zootopia is a funny talking animal cartoon that grown-ups can enjoy without apology, and if one studio can do it, any studio can do it.
This may be the death knell for big budget live action movies.
No, I am not kidding…
SPOILERICIOUS AFTER JUMP
Zootopia as the perfect plot:
Hot damn! From the very first scene this movie is laying track that pays off all the way to the end!
I have never seen a film this intricately plotted and well thought out.
In their second meeting, while Nick and Judy are walking along a Zootopia street, Nick casually swipes a couple of blueberries from a neighborhood fruit stand and gobbles them down.
Nick likes blueberries!
Later, when Judy picks up Nick in her family’s farm truck en route to solving the case, Nick is delighted to find a box of blueberries in the cab and loads up his handkerchief with them.
This is the handkerchief he uses to bandage Judy’s leg in the climax…
We see the blueberries fall out when he does so.
Then, when Mayor Bellweather shoots Nick with what she thinks is the night howler pellet, and Nick apparently goes savage and seems to attack Judy, to suddenly learn they switched the poisonous blue pellet with a harmless blueberry is no deus ex machina pulled out of their collective butts but a case of brilliant thinking on the part of our heroes…
It’s as big a deus ex machina ending as one could ever hope to encounter, but because Zootopia lays the track for it so subtly, so softly, so nonchalantly, so flippin’ brilliantly the audience isn’t going “Hey, now…” but “Brava!”
And it’s supported by other equally flawless examples. The entire climax is prefigured in the school play that opens the movie, the play that not only sets up the entire premise of the film and raison d’etre of the city of Zootopia itself but also specifically sets up the mechanics of the climax, all the way to Judy’s fake death at the fangs of a predator who is just playing a part.
And don’t overlook the carrot pen, which used once would have been just a gimmick that stuck out like a sore thumb but, used several times and in a different manner each time becomes a vital prop in the story.
And there’s more, more, more, so much more: How both Judy and Emmett Otterton would both know what night howlers were, how skillfully scenes are set up to let us think we’re going down blind alleys when they’re actually pointing us to the truth, how tiny details that seem like mere window dressing turn out to play crucial parts in the unfolding of the plot, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
Zootopia is a flippin’ Swiss watch of intricate story plotting, and while an argument can still be made of the value of a single overriding creator vision, this proves that great art is possible by committee.
The theology of Zootopia:
Okay, I gotta admit, I’m honestly puzzled here.
There are clearly Biblical references in the films: The lion mayor and his lamb assistant being one of the most obvious.
Several references to praying, allusions to a higher authority.
A flippin’ polar bear crosses himself.
Did the film makers consciously know what they were doing?
Or were they just throwing in stuff our culture absorbed through simple osmosis after two millennia of exposure to a dominant Christian belief system?
I don’t know.
I honestly don’t know.
Look, it doesn’t matter to the final appreciation of the film, either as an entertainment or as an intricately plotted story.
But it does raise an interesting side question as to exactly what do these animals believe and how was that manifested to them?
And that ain’t even counting the fact Zootopia has yoga classes.
What is Zootopia?
An alternate world where animals evolved?
Or a post apocalyptic world where humans are long dead and animals have evolved to take our place?
I don’t have an aswer…
 There is ethnic humor up the wazoo in Zootopia but unlike George Lucas’ offensive stereotypes in the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies, the humor is never tightly bound to a specific human ethnicity. Mr. Big is less of an Italian stereotype and more of a specifically Marlon Brando parody; certain fox stereotypes are applicable to African-Americans but not all, etc. Also, there is ethnic humor found in the species of animals themselves; there is no human equivalent for the timber wolves’ group howls.
 “Old” as in “fifteen minutes ago”.
 Zootopia is the latest advancement of a technology first introduced in Big Hero 6 in which background characters don’t have to be individually animated but are programmed to interact naturally with their environment. A giraffe walking down the street in the background may decide to stop and look at a shop window without a human being programming that character to do so. It adds an incredible level of verisimilitude to animated films while minimizing animation time.
 Story by Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee; Screenplay by Jared Bush & Phil Johnston; Dan Fogelman (additional story material; uncredited); Story Production Supervisor: Jenny Bettis; Lead Story Artists: John Ripa and Marc Smith; Story Artists: Tom Ellery, Jason Hand, Chris Hubbard, Nancy Kruse, Benjamin Lane, Normand Lemay, Lauren MacMullan, Steven Markowski, Toby Shelton, Jeff Snow, Jeremy Spears, Lissa Treiman, and Fawn Veerasunthorn; Additional Story art by Stephen Anderson, Paul Briggs, Kevin Deters, Don Dougherty, Ryan Green, Brian Kesinger, Joe Mateo, Leo Matsuda, Carlos Romero, Dean Wellins, Chris Williams, and Stevie Wermers-Skelton