Zootopia (2016) Review
The world of Zootopia is a diverse place where the animal kingdom has evolved beyond predator and prey and are now a fully homogenized anthropomorphized society with lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes and all living in harmony. In the city, a new cop is on the force, the first rabbit to ever be a police officer, and while it’s been her dream since she was young, it’s not the job she thought it was until she and a fox team up to solve a troubling case in this well-animated film that hits all the usual marks plus a few unexpected ones.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a peppy bunny who, in the film’s opening, as a child in a play, runs down the history of how animals gave up the dead-end path of hunters and hunted for the more forward-thinking approach that now sees them living exactly like modern day humans, driving in cars, living in buildings, using technology and sharing their (mostly) peaceful world together. After she defies the odds in graduating from the academy, the Mayor (J. K. Simmons) assigns her to the coveted District 1 in Zootopia where on her first day, after police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), who initially doesn’t really see the use of a tiny rabbit on the force, gives her 48 hours to find a missing otter (one of 14 predators who have gone missing), or else hand in her badge.
She encounters a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is running a profitable scam involving popsicles, and based on his contacts and an incriminating photo, enlists his help in tracking down the otter. The case has them visiting all the various locales of Zootopia and the animals that inhabit them, including a weaselly weasel (Alan Tudyk), a hippie nudist yak (Tommy Chong), a slow sloth (Raymond S. Persi) and a mob boss named Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche) who is, dramatic pause, very tiny. They soon discover an elaborate plot to de-evolve predators that threatens to spread panic and fear across the land.
Zootopia is by any standard a typical Disney animated film, filled with adorable animals and lots of colorful characters who are fun to watch. The target audience will certainly respond to the likes of Nick and especially Judy, a wide-eyed long-eared bundle of cute (a word rabbits in this world feel is a slur). While there are a number of obvious setups and payoffs, the premise deftly handles more meaningful themes without pointedly hammering them at the audience. Diversity, prejudice and discrimination are all properly addressed and handled well from the relationship of the two leads, who begin slightly at odds, facing age-old precepts of each other to the more densely broached subject of race relations in general. The setting is naturally ripe for such themes, with enormous creatures, such as giraffes and elephants living among mice and other rodents, all of whom have parts of the city designed especially for them. This also allows for Judy to feel both very small in some places but then just the opposite in others, where she towers above.
Directed by Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-it Ralph), what works best in this latest CGI animated movie are the performances of course and the wonderfully eye-popping visuals, but more so how honest it all seems, never smarmy or pandering, but genuine in its presentation of some often hard truths. “The world has always been broken,” says Chief Bogo to Judy, who never thought of it that way before, believing in the purity of the modern animal kingdom. It’s hard stuff for the bunny to accept, but even harder when she realizes she too, despite her immeasurably upbeat and righteous persona, clings to some things that time and evolution have not made easy to let go. A scene under a bridge with Nick when she confronts that truth is one of the film’s most authentic and touching moments. What makes it work is the movie’s refusal to avoid the easy road and let children see the consequences of the movie’s core message. And a solution. The voice work by Bateman, who has perfected the charming boyish do-gooder, and Goodwin, who simply delights, is pitch perfect, a duo that will surely come together again.
Some issues occur with other characters, like the aforementioned Mr. Big (an arctic shrew), a not-so-subtle ‘homage’ to the Godfather, which will go over the heads of most youngsters the film is aiming for, but it’s also a bit lazy, as it doesn’t simply stop with his characterization but is extended to a wedding that sees our heroes saved from getting ‘iced’ by an obvious coincidence that reminded me of Ethan Hawke in Training Day being rescued from certain death by his impromptu connection to another person related to his potential killer. Some of the twists are telegraphed far too soon, and the message does get slightly preachy. Furthermore, anyone who has been to a movie in their lives will see no surprise when the final villain is uncovered, but these are minor concerns in a film that is meant for children and succeeds in delivering a mostly fresh adventure that the whole family should enjoy. Zootopia is a genuinely beautiful film to watch, filled with lots of splendor and imaginative creations to appeal to all ages, and introduces us to some soon-to-be very popular new characters that break a few molds in the Disney line-up.
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Writers: Jared Bush (screenplay), Phil Johnston(screenplay)
Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, Alan Tudyk