We expect this kind of thing from Pixar: the crystal clear characterization, the attention to story detail, the gorgeous computer-generated animation. When it comes to that company, these are all givens. Sister studio Disney, on the other hand, can be a bit of a mixed bag. Having ditched the traditional hand drawn animation that made it famous to follow in the trend’s high tech footsteps, we’ve had the genius of Wreck-It Ralph, and the phenomenon known as Frozen, but few people are placing those film’s in the pantheon of the artform’s best.
Now comes Zootopia, the first movie made by the modern House of Mouse that can be literally compared to Pixar’s output and come out a winner. With a narrative straight out of a far more adult crime thriller and a clever bit of pro-tolerance subtext, this is one of the best animated allegories ever. It’s right up there with Animal Farm, Watership Down, and Fantastic Planet. Mixed with Disney’s uncanny ability to find fun in even the most mundane of ideas, it announces a whole new strategy for the studio, one that will earn them more artistic rewards than, perhaps, boffo box office returns.
Don’t be mistaken — the kiddies will eat this up. Zootopia is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous movies Mickey’s minions have ever made. It’s reminiscent of the candy land created for Wreck-It Ralph, with brilliantly designed animals taking the place of sweet meats. Colors pop in psychedelic splendor, the lushness of the backgrounds adding depth to the already present power on display. For anyone who denies the beauty inherent in animation, just show them this film. It will definitely change their mind.
The premise revolves around an animal society where the natural instincts of predators and prey have been long ago resolved, leading to a world where both live together in a kind of peace and harmony. For rabbit Judy Hoops (Ginnifer Goodwin), her lifelong goal has been to become a police officer. When she does, however, she discovers that the city of Zootopia’s cape buffalo Chief, Bogo (Idris Elba) doesn’t believe in her bunny-based skills.
One day, while on parking duty, she’s manipulated by a con artist fox named Nick (Jason Bateman) and winds up reprimanded. When citizens go missing, Judy is given 48 hours to solve the case or lose her position. With Nick’s reluctant help, she discovers an underground conspiracy that challenges her notions of what the Zootopia community is all about. There are undercurrents of intolerance and prejudice, as well as abuses of power — and yes, this is a family film.
Indeed, the best thing about Zootopia, in a movie overflowing with goodness, is the message lying just beneath the surface. The concept of what makes a creature “savage” becomes the foundation for a debate on acceptance and misconception, and considering our current cultural clime, it’s a devastating creative decision. Most kid films just want to pile on the pop culture references and fart jokes. There’s a bit of that here, but mostly, we are given a wild and witty ride through some often complex ideas.
The voice acting definitely helps get the message across. Goodwin is wonderful as a wide-eyed innocent with some mixed-up ideas, while Bateman pours on the huckster charms. As usual, Elba brings an authoritarian spin on his police boss that amplifies his often misguided mandates. With work from other fine performers like J.K. Simmons (as Leo Lionheart, the Mayor of Zootopia), Jenny Slate (as his deputy) and Octavia Spencer (as an otter), Disney avoids the stunt casting of other studios to invest these characters with real personality. It’s not about recognizing whose who, it’s about bringing the inanimate to life.
Mothers and fathers need to be prepared to address some of the issues brought up in the film, however. Sure, they’re painted in broad strokes and perhaps a bit over-generalized, but they’re there among the flash colors and pretty, shiny things. Yes, your kids will want to collect cuddly versions of all the characters, but they may also question the unfair classifications and judgments placed on members of Zootopia’s population. Older kids will see an instant reflection of our times here. As with any work of art, the conversation it creates is as important as the entertainment value offered.
Zootopia is a blast to watch, a wonderful cartoon experience with an extra bit of gravitas for spice and flavor. It’s a singular achievement, and one that Disney can look on with pride. With Pixar constantly stealing the aesthetic limelight (and the praise and awards that come with it), their partners in animation have felt a bit left out. Even with massive box office returns, the House of Mouse has always wanted to recapture the respect that its classic cartoon features earned back in the day. With Zootopia, it’s finally back to that gold standard, and it’s a stirring return to form.