Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush, Starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman
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We are currently in a new Disney Renaissance era. Disney started getting into their current grove in 2012 with “Wreck-It Ralph”, continuing with the indescribably gigantic hit “Frozen”, and most recently before this with 2014’s “Big Hero 6”. All 3 of those films are widely loved and were huge box-office smashes. Unfortunately, I think that I like all of them less than most people. I do like all of them, and my problem with Frozen is more about the massive fanbase of the product than the film itself, but I do not love any of them. They’re all safe, as should be expected for the brand, but the latter two both have significant flaws that hinder them (Ralph’s greatest flaw is its lack of any standout element). “Zootopia”, while maybe not the best movie of this Disney era, is easily the least flawed, and thus is my favorite.
First off, this is a political message movie. “Accept others” and “follow your dreams” are very typical Disney themes, but “Zootopia” is far more direct with those themes than any predecessors. A small bunny, Judy Hopps, wants to be the first rabbit police officer in the city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything. Without spoiling any plot points, that motto of dreams quickly proves to be a lie. The town is divided between predators and prey, and species within those groups, and there is hatred between the groups. It’s a not-so-subtle allegory for racism in America. Predators make up 10% of the population, but the prey fear them, and they are often victim to unfair police investigation. Prey are the public majority, who have little power with a police force and mayor made up of predators. In spite of this, the police force and political office both want to show off publicly with prey to gain support of the commoners. The message is handled very well. It does feel a bit too preachy in some parts (“cute” is a word that rabbits can call other rabbits but is offensive for other animals to use), but on the whole it works better than I expected it to, because it does go deeper than the surface level that keeps most family movies content. Societal issues like affirmative action get direct references throughout, and in an especially important decision, a lot of the characters that would be generally thought of as good are no more accepting of others than most of the bad characters, helping kids to see that these issues aren’t a simple matter of right or wrong, but rather a complex web where most people deserve a little bit of blame and nobody deserves a lot of it. The parallels make sense more often than they don’t, and in this modern political environment, it really is the perfect moral to teach to adults as well as kids. It actually reflects real life by admitting that stereotypes usually exist for a reason but can be overcome by especially good or bad individuals, and both the stereotypes and racism lead to some very good jokes.
I say that the message works for adults before kids because “Zootopia” feels like it’s trying to reach adults, in a few ways. For better or worse, it is more dramatic than any Disney movie I can think of in recent memory. There is a half hour period at the end of the second act where the film takes itself seriously as a noir cop drama. It puts no effort into telling jokes in this segment, showing off a tense action scene and racial politics. I personally enjoyed this, but I do think it bored most of the children in the audience. The humor is also very dialogue heavy. It’s not necessarily filled with innuendos or “adult jokes”, but most of the jokes are witty lines of speech with virtually no slapstick involved, save for one chase scene early on. I don’t see this one playing especially well to really younger kids who aren’t able to grasp references to animal behavior or wordplay. 6 and above is probably the best age to enjoy this. The lack of slapstick really does make the movie a better experience, though. Most other animation studios these days rely on toilet jokes, but the whopping 7 “Zootopia” writers respect their audience more than that, and the jokes required some effort to write. Further proof of the more adult aim is the running time. At almost 110 minutes, “Zootopia” is the second longest Disney animated movie ever after “Fantasia”, a 1940s experimental art film that is definitely aimed at adults.
Of course, being adult has some downsides too. This is the most Dreamworks-like a Dinsey movie has felt since this redemption era has started. It features people who I suppose you could call celebrity voices (Jason Bateman and Idris Elba aren’t close to the A list, or even worth putting their names on a poster, but they’re decently known live-action actors) in major roles, has a moderate number of jokes that reference other movies or pop culture icons (the Breaking Bad throwaway line is great, the far too long Marlon Brando Corleone bit is annoying after a while), and the Shakira thing exists so I might as well bring it up. Shakira wants a hit song to get in on some awards shows, and Disney wants to market a completely original movie to foreign audiences, and they can help each other out in this, because Disney has created more Best Song Oscars than any other production company by a lot, and Shakira is the most popular recording artist in most Western countries outside of North America. It’s a rather cynical cash grab from both parties. The overt sexualization of Shakira’s character Gaselle does not help matters. If they had to use a celebrity in the film and acknowledge her as a celebrity in-universe, they did realize that the smartest way to do it was to lampoon celebrity activism campaigns, so there is a sort of saving grace to the messy situation.
At the end of the day, like most Disney movies, the film works because the relationship between the two main characters works. Wilde and especially Hopps feel like real people. You know that it’s animated, but you stop caring after a while because of how lifelike the leads are. Both are fully fleshed out with backstories, personalities, and growth arcs. They also both have prejudices of their own. Obviously Hopps has to have her past build towards hating foxes, so that she can get paired with a fox whom she hates at first but comes around to respect, but there is a very powerful moment when they have a fight and Hopps ducks away from Wilde, then reaches for a fox repellent. It’s about 5 seconds long and doesn’t feature any dialogue, but it’s a little moment that firmly establishes the protagonist as flawed. Hopps is always conflicted, and while she grows as a
person rabbit she doesn’t necessarily become a better one. Ginnifer Goodwin’s voice acting is a huge help to all of this. She gets to run through every emotion imaginable in her performance, switching through all of them seamlessly. She is undeniably physically weak and a little bit racist too, and a lot of the lessons she learns from Wilde aren’t positive attributes, but she separates herself from other public figures by knowing how to put those feelings and flaws aside for the sake of doing her job. She wants to be a cop so badly that it distracts her from focusing on the negative parts of her character. Wilde is a more traditional character, the criminal rogue who gets reformed into a good citizen over time, but that isn’t a bad character to use, and his chemistry with Hopps is good enough to overlook the cliches. Jason Bateman is as smarmy as ever, and his fast talking both with and against Hopps creates a lot of subtle humor on its own. Being likable and having a sad backstory without much depth would be a problem if he is the lead, but as a comedic foil and sidekick to a genuinely layered lead character, he fits the role fine. As I said, although it is basic, he does have clearly defined traits and does end the movie as a changed animal. It’s really the most anybody could have asked out of him.
My favorite part of “Zootopia” other than Hopps was the city itself, with its vast terrains where animals are separated based on their climates. I always think that Disney animation is overrated by the general public, who will associate adequate animation in a good movie with good animation. In reality, Disney has some fine animators that don’t do anything especially great. They are not as ambitious or groundbreaking as Pixar in style, and they are not up to the high quality of Dreamworks in execution (except for 2010’s “Tangled”, which is the most expensive animated film ever made and thus is impossible to recreate). Those things are both still true, but the brilliant concept outweighs the fine quality of work in this case. The regions of the city are inventive. It was a unique idea to have animals exist together in a city drawn to scale, and it was innovative to reflect that in the production design. All areas are completely different, too, with more than just superficial elements and colors distinguishing them. The detail is great. The rainforest district uses covered skybuckets and wooden bridges for transportation, the rodent district is entirely miniature, and the tundra town is a permanent winter complete with holiday stores. The train that passes through all of the regions has different sized doors for different sized animals to use, and the central hub of the city shows off the scale brilliantly, with food getting made by large animals for large portions and shot up to giraffes through tubes. The world building alone is more creative than the entirety of a lot of other talking animal movies.
Ultimately functioning well as both a Disney animated comedy and a cop mystery, “Zootopia” creates a lead officer and environment that most filmmakers couldn’t dream of, and matches them up with a solid screenplay that mixes drama, humor, and social satire. What it lacks in originality of plot and character it makes up for in heart and creativity. It’s a PG movie like PG means something. Keep your very little kids at home, but for children and adults alike, this is a must-watch. It could be the best animated movie that cinemas get this year.