Disney's latest (directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, from a screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, story by a menagerie of writers) proposes an unlikely community where predator and prey live in uneasy harmony.
The burg, officially named 'Zootopia,' looks suspiciously like Disneyland: towering central structure much like Cinderella's Castle from which radiates neatly divided 'lands' with neatly assigned themes (Tundraland, Rainforest District, Sahara Square, Little Rodentia) and neatly divided microclimes (freezing, humid, arid, urban), not to mention a fast-gliding monorail linking all realms together. The movie borrows details from The Godfather and Who's Afraid of Roger Rabbit and granddaddy of neo-noirs Chinatown (from which Roger Rabbit cribs much of its own plot) to present a mystery: who's kidnapping the citizens of Zootopia (mainly predators), and can a rabbit (Officer Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and con-artist fox (Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman) work together long enough to solve the case?*
*(As mysteries go it's not especially difficult to solve; figured it out halfway through by asking a simple question: (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to watch the movie (which I don't particularly recommend)!) who's the least likely suspect and what's their motive?)
As with most present-day entertainments the filmmakers pilfer from other pictures to make their own but unacknowledged in their DNA (far as I know) are the influence of two graphic novels: Alan Moore's Top Ten (alternate-universe community where every citizen wields superpowers) and Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (biographical retelling of Spiegelman's father Vladek's ordeal in the concentration camps, with mice for Jews and cats for Nazis).
Reading Moore's and Spiegelman's work might tell you what's wrong with Disney's: a concept (predators and prey in close cohabitation) arbitrarily shoehorned into an allegory about racial tolerance without much thought to the dynamics of the premise (what do prey and predator eat--Soylent Green?). A script that throws gags and slapstick routines at the audience to distract them from asking the really interesting questions (do citizens practice interspecies sex, and will fox and bunny get it on? Why when Hopps visits a nudist colony don't the animals have genitals or rectums? The featureless flesh on display seems if anything more disturbing--like a face with the mouth missing). Moore (as shown in Top Ten) wouldn't have shied away--would instead have focused on the questions, in all probability coming up with unflinching, fascinatingly uncomfortable answers.
If Moore's all about uncomfortable Spiegelman is apparently all about the bigger picture: the city is inhabited by carnivorous and herbivorous mammals, fine--what about reptiles? Insects? Microbes? What about hive minds, or a group consciousness? Are these the fantasies of some depraved zookeeper, or an alternate reality where (as in Pixar's Cars) humans have been wiped out, perhaps slaughtered by the animals' ancestors?
I know I know I know--the movie's all about 'rising beyond our bestial natures,' and being 'better than what we are,' so on and so forth--standard Disney fare given a millennial polish. But the questions persist: are our animal natures so bad? Predators play an important role in nature after all, as predators and not just upstanding citizens wearing a predator mask (an authentic Spiegelman moment there, come to think of it): they cull the sick and weak from the herd, limiting the spread of the disease and curbing overpopulation. They force their prey to evolve abilities--speed, strength, brains--to evade capture (in Larry Niven's Known Space series the most intelligent and hence most powerful species happen to be the plant-eating Puppeteers, the least successful the meat-eating Kzin). Tolerance is a fine lesson to teach kids watching an animated feature, but in my book evolution--conflict and opposition to achieve transcendence--is the far richer more interesting concept.
Last thing: I know a lot of folks who like Judy Hopps; as Goodwin plays her she's appealingly funny and vulnerable. Personally speaking though I found it hard to focus on her more personable traits; her courage and selflessness barely register. Far as I'm concerned Officer Hopps was just a delectable creature with juicy flesh stretched over marrow-filled bones.
I have plans for Judy; I have a recipe involving sprigs of tarragon and chicken stock and white wine, not to mention dollops of tarragon-scented biscuit dough ready and waiting to turn brown after sitting for half an hour with her chopped-up carcass in a Dutch oven. I figure an Adams County Reisling (hey buy local) with its subtle tones of honeysuckle and apricot would complement the dish (not to mention flavor the broth) nicely. I only wait for the perfect opportunity.