When a film makes over $70 million in an opening weekend, it is hard to argue that the marketing team behind a movie did a subpar job. In all fairness to Walt Disney Animation, the trailers and tactics used for this movie worked on a level, by creating a fun and seemingly harmless atmosphere around the film. This likely increased the level of interest in kids, or families with children, but the fact of the matter was, there had not been a movie targeted to children since “Kung Fu Panda 3” in January.
However, the critical success of the film snuck up on many Disney fans, myself included. Among friends and other people I had talked to, most thought the movie was going to be “Dreamworks quality” or a return to the early 2000s for Disney. Some thought the ceiling for the movie, based solely on its marketing, was going to be more in line with “Bolt,” a film that is fun, but ultimately does not come up in conversations about great Disney movies.
After this week though, it is hard to argue that case anymore. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99%, a Metacritic score of 78%, and a $73.7 million opening weekend box office, the film is an unbelieveable success for Disney Animation. With “Moana” still on the horizon, it is hard to argue against the idea that Disney Animation is in Renaissance 2.0 mode, with “Wreck-It-Ralph,” “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6” representing a run in Disney history that stacks up against any decade in Disney history (and we’re only 6 years in).
Still, the subject matter of “Zootopia” and the genre choices were the most shocking about the film. With many thinking that the movie would be a simple “talking animals movie,” it instead mixed elements of mystery, crime comedy, and solid commentary on the current state of police activity. The film found a way to walk the tightrope between portraying police officers in a negative light, while maintaining that some bad apples do not create a broken system. Its mystery elements harkened back to “The Great Mouse Detective” and “The Rescuers,” but held onto comedy aspects one would expect to find in a film like “Ocean’s 11” or “The Big Lebowski.”
This is no doubt a very different film than we expected, and we have to place some of the blame on Disney. It’s possible they didn’t realize that their film would resonate so strongly with young adults or with the politically charged climate in America right now. Yet, the film that was sold to us lowered expectations to the point that many thought the film would be Disney Animation’s first misstep in its run. What we got were cute scenes of sloths, that ultimately had little to do with the film as a whole.
The problem that the marketing presents though, is that it tells audiences that unless Disney embraces the schtick of “The Minions” or low stakes animation stories, that audiences won’t show up. I think audiences are more grown up than that. If we knew it was a mystery/noir film with comedy, audiences still would have shown up. We would have loved to see a Disney that would lampoon itself, make pop culture jokes, and engage with the zeitgeist. These are the elements that will let this film endure, and some members of the audience were already saying this is their favorite Disney movie in years.
These aspects of the film will be what we remember, and the marketing campaign will fade away with time. Still, it would be nice for Disney to treat its audience with some respect, as opposed to going for the lowest common denominator to bring in audiences. Even though Disney has always been for kids, they don’t have to treat their entire audience like one.
“Zootopia” is currently in theaters. It stars Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Tommy Chong, Shakira, and Alan Tudyk.