Warning: this review contains spoilers the size of elephants.
2016’s Zootropolis is the first animated conspiracy thriller to come out of the Mouse House. It’s been called a “conspiracy thriller for children”, but as we all know, most Disney films hold just as much appeal for adults as they do little’uns, if not more.
What makes this film a conspiracy thriller? The most obvious element is the fact that, unusually for a Disney movie, the villain is a “them”, not a “him” or “her”. And the story itself is a conspiracy trope—the old ‘minor crime reveals major plot’ number, where an insignificant incident leads to the discovery of something much larger going on behind it.
To say that the trope receives a bold, fresh and genuinely inspired coat of paint in Zootropolis is an understatement. The setting and characters are the first indication of that.
Zootropolis is a fully functioning city designed by and made for animals, where predators and prey have advanced beyond their instincts and live in harmony. Viewers are treated to some ingeniously designed places, such as the 21-inches-tall Little Rodentia and the icy Tundratown, and there are some fantastic moments of animal-related humour, most notably the sloths at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). Judy Hopps arrives in Zootropolis, full of drive and enthusiasm and ready to start busting criminals as the ZPD’s first bunny cop. She’s tasked with investigating a seemingly unimportant missing persons case—the disappearance of Mr Otterton—and soon stumbles onto a much bigger and higher-stakes mystery.
Teaming up with con artist fox Nick Wilde, Judy discovers that Mr Otterton went “savage” right before his disappearance. He also yelled something about “night howlers” before attacking the chauffeur of fearsome crime boss Mr Big (revealed in a clever and funny scene to be a tiny Arctic shrew). Then the chauffeur himself, Manchas, turns “savage” and goes missing. Judy and Nick learn that Manchas was abducted by wolves, who Judy surmises are the “night howlers”. They end up at Cliffside Asylum, finding Manchas, Mr Otterton, and thirteen other missing predators—all of whom have returned to a feral state.
Zootropolis actually contains two conspiracies. The first is to do with the predators going missing—cases that the ZPD believe are unrelated at the start of the film. Halfway through we learn that the wolves abducting them are working for the mayor of Zootropolis, Leodore Lionheart. Lionheart is imprisoning all the predators that have gone savage in order to hide them from the public, while a scientist tries to find out what’s wrong with them.
But Lionheart’s crew aren’t responsible for the predators going feral—that’s the next mystery Judy and Nick have to solve. After discovering that the “night howlers” are actually toxic flowers that have serious psychotropic effects on mammals, Judy and Nick are led to the secret laboratory of a bunch of rams led by Doug. Doug’s been developing a night-howler-based serum and shooting it at predators with a dart gun. And it’s clear from a phone call overheard by Judy and Nick that Doug and his troupe are working for someone else. Judy and Nick escape with the serum in an exciting scene on the city subway, but before they can reach the ZPD, they happen upon the new mayor—a small, sweet, bumbling sheep called Dawn Bellweather.
It then becomes clear that Bellweather’s sweet and awkward demeanour is just an act. She’s behind everything. The mastermind of a prey-supremacist conspiracy and probably the mysterious caller on the phone to Doug earlier. By turning predators feral, she and her cohorts want to incite prey to unite against them and become “unstoppable”, as she puts it.
Zootropolis is truly something unique. It has all the fundamental qualities of a conspiracy thriller—mystery, intrigue, suspicion, suspense, action and a slew of plot twists—but it’s also full of humour and heart. Judy’s a wonderful character. The fact that her story is all about her fighting the prejudices associated with being a rabbit and proving herself as a police officer—with no hint of romance—is modern and progressive. The story is free to explore such themes such as fulfilling your dreams and ambitions and learning from your mistakes, unshackled by banal romantic diversions. In the past, Disney has found the hooking up of its male and female leads impossible to resist. But the lack of romantic subplots for both of its recent female protagonists—Judy and Moana—is an enormous breath of fresh air. It’s a trend that started with Frozen—a movie that tricked us into thinking there would be a romance story and ended up being about sisterly love.
But Zootropolis is much more than a story about following your dreams. At its core is a smart, skilfully crafted and exceptionally timely social commentary about racial prejudice and discrimination. You could swap out the animals that get stereotyped, profiled and discriminated against in this film for any number of cultures and races that are or have been victims of the same. The story is an allegory of the attitudes and fears that still exist in society and politics today, and at the time of its release, Donald Trump was leading a dark and divisive presidential campaign that only added to Zootropolis’s relevance.
For me, Zootropolis has everything. A thrilling conspiracy story, great characters, positive liberal messages that are overt without being preachy, some super-clever animal puns and pop culture references, and even a cracking theme song from Shakira. The best Disney film in years.
Next week: Ireland’s ‘Vanishing Triangle’