Zootopia (2016)

I’ve seen posters and previews for Zootopia for the last few months.  The previews I saw gave little information about the story, but the basic premise of a city of anthropomorphic animals didn’t seem very appealing, and the posters looked very busy.  I thought it would be a mess.  Much to my surprise, the early reviews were glowing, and the overall reviews were outstanding, so I reconsidered a movie I had planned to skip and made it to a Sunday night viewing.  Zootopia is a real delight and easily the most surprising movie experience of the year for me, so far.

Zootopia is a bustling metropolis of evolved, anthropomorphic animals, predators and prey alike, living together.  Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from the country, is the newest member of the Zootopia Police Department, and the first rabbit on the force.  Being a cop has been her dream ever since she was a precocious, young bunny.  She soon finds that being a cop and being a trailblazer is more difficult than she dreamed, but jumps at the first possible opportunity to prove herself to her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), an African buffalo.  She attempts to tackle a missing mammal case involving an otter, and she also crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist fox.  Enlisting Nick’s help through coercion, Judy and Nick attempt to track down Mr. Otterman and potentially exposing the reason behind the rash of disappearances around the city.

The world that has been created here is fully realized and fleshed out.  Animals of all shapes and sizes inhabit Zootopia and they all adhere to their typical traits.  There are bullet trains, and each compartment has different sizes to accommodated tall giraffes or little mice.  Hippos travel to work through water and walk through an air blower that dries them off.  Judy, when she gets impatient, stamps her foot rapidly, like a rabbit would.  There are a lot of subtle touches that really show an attention to detail.  And the city itself is comprised of several different boroughs and neighborhoods that are tailored to the animals that live there: Tundratown, the Rainforest District, Sahara Square, Savana Central, and even Little Rodentia, which is the Greenwich Village of Zootopia and is featured in one of the real highlights of the movie when Hopps pursues a criminal into it on foot.  Even the country town of Bunnyburrow where Hopps is from, is well-conceived.  Her family, consisting of her mom and dad (voiced by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake), and her hundreds of brothers and sisters, are carrot farmers.

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Everything about the production of this movie is outstanding.  The graphics look great.  Everything looks intricately detailed.  The score from Michael Giacchino, one of the best in the business.  The voice acting is all well done and fits the characters, or do not on purpose in the case of Nick’s con partner.  In addition to Goodwin, Bateman, Elba, Hunt, and Lake, the cast features J.K. Simmons (as Mayor Lionheart), Jenny Slate (his sheepish, put-upon assistant Bellweather, a sheep), and Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer, Nate Torrance, and Tommy Chong.  Even Shakira lends her voice as Gazelle, the pop music singer that everyone is obsessed with.  It’s an eclectic group that blends well, and Goodwin and Bateman as the leads play well off of each other.

The story is an interesting step for Disney, long a bastion of safe storylines that mostly do not upset the apple cart in any way.  In a period of time where racial tensions and anxieties are at their highest point in recent history in this country, this film touches on a number of socially relevant issues.  Stereotypes, discrimination, inclusiveness, segregation, political correctness, and even religious tolerance can all be viewed in some way through the prism of the interactions between Judy and Nick, in how animals are viewed as predators and prey, in how Nick is initially refused service at a business, and on a subway scene where a little animal cuddles up to its mom in fear when a predator animal sits down next to them, calmly reading his newspaper.  Initially, I winced at the P.C. message it seemed like the movie was sending, where in one scene in particular after a co-worker calls her “cute” Judy politely corrects him, saying, “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it it’s a little…”  Thankfully, the movie shows that even Judy has her own prejudices and lessons to learn in stereotyping people.  By the end of the movie though, I think the message of the movie ends up in a really nice place, recognizing that real life is more than just a “slogan on a bumper sticker.”  Real tolerance and inclusiveness is about embracing that real life is messy, everyone makes mistakes, and because of that we all have a lot in common and being ok with that.

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Personally, one of the real delights of the movie was the way they managed to incorporate some winking tributes to classic movies and employ genre aspects you typically would not see in most children’s fare.  While a major theme of the movie is about learning to embrace the differences and uniqueness of others, a lot of the plot can be boiled down to a typical buddy cop movie, with Judy and Nick being the mismatched duo that team up to solve a mystery with a friendship being born out of their initial antagonism toward one another.  Aside from the noticeable nod to The Godfather when they are taken to a mob boss with a funny visual payoff, and a Breaking Bad reference that is sure to go over the head of any child watching, there is also a neo-noir feel to some aspects of the story, particularly when Judy and Nick venture into the Rainforest District at night to investigate an attack on someone.  That whole bit felt like it was right out of a 1940s detective noir thriller.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, there is a lot of this movie that is funny.  There are a lot of visual gags.  Jokes and dialogue are entertaining and clever.  It helps to have Bateman involved, as he is someone who can bring heartfelt and sardonic in almost equal doses.  The funniest part of the movie, though, is a trip to the DMV that Judy and Nick take to get vehicle information, only for Judy to find out that the DMV is fully staffed by sloths.  It’s a great scene that effectively illustrates how much of a soul-sucking experience a trip to the DMV can feel like, and yet it was so funny I was holding back tears from laughing so hard.

Honestly, it is hard to find anything to outright dislike about Zootopia.  If you’ve read classic crime novels or seen any detective films, the plot is going to feel a little predictable in how it plays out.  But on the whole, Zootopia is a real achievement for Disney’s animation department.  Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have crafted another modern Disney animated feature that is sure to become a classic.  It is vibrant, has a lot of energy without being overly busy, and works as entertainment for kids and adults, something that can rarely be said for non-Pixar animated films.  It far exceeded the very low expectations I had for it.

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Rating 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

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