I went into Disney’s new 3D animated Zootopia not expecting too much. When pulled into the theater by an enthusiastic 7 year old and being surrounded by the chatter from others in his demographic, I am usually prepared to put on the dark glasses and maybe catch a few winks, but I am happy to report that Zootopia won me over almost immediately and kept me there throughout the 108 minute run time.
The best way to describe Zootopia is visually gorgeous – its animation is rich and imaginative. Depicting a mammal paradise that seems like a theme park no doubt is Disney’s expertise, and there is nothing to disappoint here. A swift moving train takes you from one habitat to another – the frozen Tundratown, the especially parched Sahara Square, or the humid and always wet Rainforest District – and makes you think of a new Disney destination in the making.
But at the heart of the film is the story and here it centers on the hyper, energetic, and easy to like Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who faces discrimination as she tries to become the first bunny on the police force. With subtle but clear indications that she is not all that wanted, especially by gruff water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), Hopps is given a sort of probation and must crack the case of a missing otter in order to stay on the force.
This leads to an unlikely partnership with slick as they come sly fox Nick Wilde (a hilarious Jason Bateman) who offers to help her with his own brand of sniffing out the clues. The relationship between this predator and prey is important because it shows how the metropolis of Zootopia brings all mammals together in harmony, but also indicates the underlying prejudice simmering beneath the surface – the suspicion by the majority prey population that the predators are really not that docile after all.
As Hopps and Wilde start to investigate, there are wonderful moments that the kids will probably miss but the adults will appreciate – nods to The Godfather, Breaking Bad, and Chinatown are subtly slick but fun for the kids anyway.
There is also the actual investigation that gets more interesting – we discover 13 predators besides the otter are missing. Hopps and Wilde uncover a pernicious plot that is meant to play on the fears and prejudices of the prey and create a new city without predators in the mix. Anyone watching the presidential debates will recognize parallels to what is going on here.
It isn’t often that an animated film takes on topics like diversity, feminism, and corruption, but Zootopia does just that while remaining entertaining and delightful. The film never gets overly heavy – credit Michael Giacchino’s musical score for avoiding the cue of violins to invoke sadness during emotional moments – and instead opts for an upbeat music that follows the energizer personality of our heroine bunny Hopps.
We meet funny if slightly shady characters along the way – Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) a somewhat corrupt lion, Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) an overworked lamb, and Yak the Yak (Tommy Chong) a stoned and bug infested yak who add to the mix and the mystery.
But the key to this film working is the buddy relationship that develops between Hopps and Wilde. Goodwin and Bateman never drop the ball as they keep things going on what almost seems like an ad-libbed level, even during a prolonged sequence at the DMV where all the workers are ultra-slow moving sloths. This hilarious commentary on the typical experience for most people when they go to renew their licenses or registration is just the tip of the iceberg Disney is exposing here.
The message of Zootopia seems particularly poignant at this time and place in history. While people circle political wagons and expose the ugly side of America during this year’s race for the White House, the film stresses the need to find a way to inclusivity and equity for all – in this case the mammals of Zootopia, despite some who wish to exploit prejudice and fear to exclude others and strengthen their power.
This is a rather large hurdle that directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and co-director Jared Bush seem more than able to clear. They have found the right formula to send their message while giving us visually sumptuous animation, a story and characters kids will love, and enough dangling carrots to keep the adults happy.
Zootopia isn’t your parents’ Disney animated film – it’s yours and your kids’ – and it knocks the ball out of the park. Take your little ones by their hands and go to see it and prepare to be delighted and amazed.
Photo credits: Disney.com