Zootopia was sold to the audience earlier this year as more or less a bright and funny kid’s movie featuring talking animals engaging in all kinds of hijinks. There were some hints as to a mystery that needed to be solved but the marketing was focused around not only the general idea but specifically the one scene of the sloth at the DMV. That was the centerpiece of the campaign and shows how Disney wasn’t necessarily trying to misrepresent the full movie but certainly wasn’t anxious to lay everything out to the audience.
To recap the story: Judy Hopps (voiced by Gennifer Goodwin) is a young rabbit who wants to do something other than work the family farm. So she leaves for the big city of Zootopia and works to become the first rabbit police officer on the force. That’s not easy, though, as most cops are bigger, meaner animals and she’s just a little rabbit. So she has to work extra hard not just to be good enough but to be better than anyone else. After graduating she’s assigned the lowly role of meter maid, where she encounters Nick Wylde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a sly fox who’s always working a con. After a series of circumstances, the two wind up investigating the disappearance of a number of mammals recently, something that winds up being tied to city officials, who wanted to create a climate of fear in the city to advance their own personal political agendas and careers.
Very little of that, though, made it into the campaign. Instead the audience was presented with a lot of world-building, where characters are talking about the concept of Zootopia and how it’s a place where predator and prey all live together. There are visuals of smoothies being sent up chutes to zebras and parking tickets so big they blow away the tiny mouse-sized cars they’re attached to. Some of the trailers hint at Judy enlisting Nick’s help to solve a case of animals going savage, but that’s quickly breezed past in favor of the “Mr. Big” joke where he looks and sounds just like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, the movie’s least original gag.
The movie has a lot of good things to say about some important topics:
1) How institutional discrimination forces women and other groups to either self-select out of some vocations and roles or, if they proceed, how they’re met with roadblocks, disbelief and a lack of support from higher-ups. Again, they have to work twice as hard to be twice as good just to be seen as equals to men and even then they’re often given sub-standard positions or, too frequently, paid less than their male counterparts.
2) How fear and paranoia are used by politicians to keep the populace in line and advance their own agenda. While this is a vital topic today as we’re staring down the barrel of a Trump candidacy, the tactic is nothing new. And the characters are faced with the decision as to whether exposing these schemes hurts or harms the public good, which is a complex question, one many adult-oriented movies are wary of exploring too deeply.
3) How sometimes bullshit is your best call. Nick is an unapologetic con artist, but the story doesn’t punish him for it as is often the case in many movies. Instead he’s ultimately rewarded after it’s proven his ability to talk his way out of any situation, pull the wool over people’s eyes and ultimately advance his own agenda is shown to be an asset. This is important since this kind of skill is usually only assigned to “bad” characters who are vilified for it until they either change their ways or face some sort of negative consequence. Zootopia, though, shows that it’s just as important a survival skill as anything else.
None of those elements are in the campaign, though. Instead audiences were told to come for the funny joke about sloths being in charge of the DMV because hey, that’s something funny we can all relate to. And oh, look how the train has doors for all sizes of animals. And hey, the mole is going a Brando impersonation. All very safe and comforting elements that don’t challenge the audience at all. Which makes it all the more surprising that the movie was a box-office success since it would have been easy for audiences to come out of the theater feeling they’d been sold a feel-good comedy and instead got a civics lesson from a bunch of commie social justice warriors.
In this case it really does seem there was intent from the studio to hide many of the aspects of the movie’s story from audiences during the marketing phase. That’s the only explanation for how there are such vast swaths of that story that are missing from the campaign. Fortunately for Disney, though, audiences were hooked anyway, turning it into a hit.