You can guess which movie partly inspired this post, but the other part of the inspiration came from two of my favorite reviews: a commentary on the social message, and a review from a very smart author and film critic. You’ll notice a common type of comment in both of them:
“And though Zootopia doesn’t have the emotional heft of the finest of [Disney films], it has a gutsiness that’s impressive, awkward beats and all.”
“Zootopia isn’t quite as brilliant a movie as Inside Out or even Wreck-It Ralph, but it has twists are [sic] are just as clever as the ones in those movies.”
Otherwise, the reviews are fairly glowing. It’s almost as if the reviewers felt the need to correct for recency bias by saying, “Okay, I know I’ve been raving about it, but these other movies are better.” Another friend of mine said after seeing it, “I wouldn’t put it in the top three Pixar movies or even top three Disney movies.”
I haven’t really gone back and checked thoroughly, but I skimmed a few old reviews of Frozen and Tangled. Didn’t find comments like this. I found comments about how Tangled harkens back to the golden age of Disney with updated characters; I found comments about how Frozen‘s plot and characters weren’t great but Olaf was terrific. I decided to check and see what people thought the best Disney and Pixar movies were, and let me tell you, that is a rabbit hole.
There are as many lists of Pixar’s sixteen full-length movies as there are people who have seen them. The same ones generally gravitate to the top (Toy Story movies, Up, WALL-E). Disney lists vary even more. I found one list clearly by someone who grew up in the early 90s that put five of the Little Mermaid – Hunchback run of films (leaving out The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas) as the top five. Of all time.
Beauty and the Beast tends to find its way to the top of lots of Disney lists, of course; The Little Mermaid and The Lion King also get high regard. Some people love the old films that Disney himself helmed; some people like the recent run under Lasseter.
The point of all this is that there are so many ways to judge films that making any kind of list is at some point going to be subjective. You can say broadly that Up is a better movie than Cars, that Beauty and the Beast is better than Home on the Range. But when you get to the top stratum of Really Good Movies, you’re pretty much left relying on subjective measurements. “Doesn’t have the emotional heft” means “it didn’t affect me as much.” As I said in a previous post, Disney’s The Fox and the Hound affected me more than Beauty and the Beast–me personally. I doubt you would find a lot of people who feel the same. “Isn’t as brilliant as” means “I wasn’t as impressed with its vision.” Now, me personally, I thought Inside Out was a neat concept, but I wasn’t as impressed with the concept of that movie as maybe some other people were (maybe too many flashbacks to Herman’s Head, or maybe just not enough experience writing psychological stories, or maybe not enough experience around teen girls).
What I think these comments are also saying is that while it’s too soon to place Zootopia in the hierarchy of Disney and Pixar*, it is firmly in the conversation with the best films of those studios. You wouldn’t need a disclaimer separating it from the ones that were your favorites otherwise. But I look forward in the coming years to seeing reviews say of the new Disney/Pixar releases: “It doesn’t have the ambition/sharp writing/worldbuilding of, say, Zootopia, but…”
(* I saw one review that said “it’s the best movie Disney’s made in the last twenty years,” a clear reference to Beauty and the Beast/The Lion King, and another that said, “people saying it’s the best movie in the last twenty years need to calm down.”)
Personally, my top five Pixar movies are The Incredibles, Up, Ratatouille, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2, in some order. My favorite Disney movies of their first fifty-four are probably The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bolt, The Fox and the Hound, and The Emperor’s New Groove, again in some order (and I don’t fool myself that four of those five are probably not making anyone else’s top ten even).
Where will Zootopia fit on that list? Well, the last film I saw in theaters more than twice was (I think) The Lion King. The last film I saw more than four times? Let’s just say there were lightsabers and a guy in a black mask involved (no, it was not Spaceballs). I’ve gone to see Zootopia so far every weekend it’s been out. Sure, a lot of this is subjective, and the fact that I’ve spent the last twenty-five or so years imagining worlds full of talking animals (most frequently foxes) has something to do with it. But so what? Every list of someone’s favorite Disney or Pixar movies is to some extent subjective. As I said, once you get up into the Really Good Movies stratum, you can make arguments for a whole bunch of the movies. And if you’ve been reading this blog, you already know a bunch of the arguments I’ve been making for the Really Good Movie Zootopia. So I’m pretty sure that the next time I make a list like the ones above, you’ll see this one on it.