Film Review – Zootopia
Disney’s Zootopia (2016) is about as middle of the road as you can get with an animated film. It doesn’t reach the stars, nor is it a unmitigated disaster. We get a nice story about chasing your dreams and being more than what society deemed you to be, while also utilizing anthropomorphic animals as an allegory for racial diversity. Parents can drive home with their kids and ask, “What did we learn from that?” and start a meaningful conversation. It’s not all that exciting, or unique, or even funny. In terms of comedy, you know the bar is set low when the funniest joke is about how a sloth moves in perpetual slow motion.
It’s moments like these where I wish a movie would either be terrible or terrific. When one sits comfortably down center its difficult to think of something more articulate than a simple “Meh, it was ok.” Let’s start with the plot. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a determined young rabbit whose life goal is to become a police officer of the urban city Zootopia. Her diminutive stature stacks the deck against her, however. Most animals don’t respect a bunny less than half their size and who looks oh so cute and cuddly. But that doesn’t deter our heroine. With an unbreakable will, Judy jumps head first into the academy, graduates with honors, and lands right in the central precinct to the detriment of her parents (Don Lake/Bonnie Hunt) and head police chief (Idris Elba). Even when she’s assigned as a meter maid, Judy strives to be the best meter maid in town.
Things get interesting when Judy runs into Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) a sly fox who makes a living as a hustler and con artist. His most recent gig is buying popsicles from larger animals and selling them to smaller animals at an obscene price. But before Judy can put the cuffs on Nick, they’re placed in over their heads with a mysterious case. Many local animals have been disappearing without a trace, the circumstances baffling even the most experienced police officers. Combining Judy’s ambitious personality and Nick’s clever know how, the two put it on themselves to solve the case and restore order to Zootopia.
There is a wonderful conception of the city. The entire land of Zootopia is divided – not all that surprising given this is Disney – like a theme park. You have your own separate sections: a desert land, a snow land, a tropical land, and the main central city. Each area is divided according to the type of animals living there. Within the larger city are smaller neighborhoods for medium sized animals, and tinier ones for the mice and hamsters. During one chase sequence, Judy has to navigate her way through a mice-central district, and her overwhelming size compared to the smaller buildings and cars is reminiscent of a Godzilla picture.
This may be the most self-referential property Disney has put out. There are a ton of callbacks to prior animated films, including but not limited to Frozen (2013), Big Hero 6 (2014), and Wreck-It Ralph (2012). Look closely and you’ll catch a reference to Moana (2016) set to be released later this year. There’s even references to movies that have nothing to do with Disney. During their investigation, Judy and Nick run into the pint-sized gang boss Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche). With his look, voice, and musical accompaniment, Mr. Big is a clear nod to Marlon Brando’s iconic character in The Godfather (1972). It’s one of the many odd comedy choices we find throughout.
Knowing that there were three directors (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush) two screenwriters (Bush, Phil Johnston) and at least eight story contributors, it’s amazing that Zootopia is as coherent as it is. The central mystery is an interesting one, and the back stories of Judy and Nick are developed well enough for us to understand their point of view. The investigation eventually takes a backseat to a more sentimental storyline, where a contrived misunderstanding places a roadblock between the main characters. This is supposed to play into the deconstruction of stereotypes, but it was hard to buy into it when supposedly intelligent characters make bad generalizations just to fit a specific theme. Ideas about social acceptance – while an earnest topic to discuss – is lightly touched upon and solved without much effort. In a time where injustice between races and social classes are at their most complex, a story such as this doesn’t examine them with any deeper nuance, regardless of the well meaning intentions.
And that’s Zootopia in a nutshell: good intentions. We have characters that work to be better versions of themselves, while trying to make society a better place for everyone else. Sure, that seems a bit schmaltzy when you think about it, but this is Disney, what else did you expect? It’s colorful, fun, and has a good message. Will I remember it tomorrow? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it today.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with animation supervisor Kira Lehtomaki.