Zootopia Review

Posted: November 3, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

zootopia-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

Back in 2010, Disney animation made something of a comeback with a movie called Tangled. It was something of a modest success though and it looked really lame to me, so it was easy to ignore. Then two years later Disney dropped Wreck-It Ralph, which got solid reviews and actually looked kinda cool. I didn’t end up seeing the film, but it at least got my attention. However the main event was the next year, when Frozen was unleashed and went on to become the most talked about movie of the year. The reviews were good, the box-office was high, and the pop-culture fandom was insane. Clearly, this wasn’t a trend that could be ignored lightly and as a cherry on top next year’s Big Hero 6 was also enthusiastically received by critics and audiences. With this year’s Zootopia also proving a hit with all audiences, I finally made the plunge and powered through all of the other films from the new Disney Renaissance. Long story short, I thought they started off rough with Tangled but each subsequent film was better than the last and that trend has continued with Zootopia.

The film takes place in a world of anthropometric talking animals who have evolved and become civilized. Now, animals of all variety, including predator and prey, live together in modern cities, suburbs, and country sides comparable to our own. The film focuses on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from the country who dreams of moving to the big city of Zootopia and becoming the first rabbit cop. Judy is frequently dismissed, but over time she works her way through police academy with top marks and becomes a cop. Initially given the role of a meter maid, Judy soon finds herself involved in a missing mammal’s case which masks a greater conspiracy. Judy is aided by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox and con artist who has a connection to the case.

Part of this modern Disney Renaissance has been spurred by Pixar visionary John Lasseter and that influence can be seen in some of the films. Wreck-It Ralph definitely has a Toy Story vibe and there are also shades of The Incredibles in Big Hero 6. From the outside, it would seem that Zootopia is their equivalent to Monsters Inc. in that it focuses on an assortment of creatures living in a modern city that is similar to the real world, but changed in small ways to accommodate the different species. There is a little bit of that in Zootopia. The world of the film is well-designed, the animation is of course excellent, and there are all sorts of little details that distinguish this world from ours. There’s a bit for example where we see “Little Weasel Town”, literally a micro-sized town to accommodate Weasels, in the middle of the city. It’s of course very tiny, but from a Weasel perspective it takes up a few blocks. Another scene shows various animals going to work through a train station and there are different lines for animals that swim, for example. Another fun element are the various animals found in the world and what jobs they are found in. The film has also assembled a pretty stellar voice cast and each fits their role really well.

These sort of world building details are neat and the film has fun exploring them, but it isn’t strictly the focus. Zootopia actually works really well as a buddy-cop movie. Judy is an idealistic dreamer, while Nick is a jaded cynic. Put together, they’ll solve the case! It’s a classic buddy set-up and the two personalities play off each other very well. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are both perfect for their respective roles and as predictable as it is to watch Judy and Nick start as adversaries and become friends, it’s still rewarding to see. They’re both likable characters and that makes all the difference. The mystery that drives the plot is pretty compelling and the adventure aspects work well too. There’s some fun chases and the film generally does a good job balancing action with character and story. The humour is mostly solid too. I definitely had some chuckles anyway, though there are also some groaners like a lame Godfather parody or a nudist colony. There’s also a really cringey song and dance number during the credits, but that is technically after the movie is over which makes it easy to ignore.

Zootopia is certainly a well-executed family movie, but what really elevates it is its interest in exploring more adult themes. At its core, this film is really all about racism and could probably by more generalized to be a film about prejudices and discrimination in general. This is established early on with Judy becoming a cop even though it is thought of as impossible because of her species and she does face a lot of discrimination. Most family films would have centered there entire message around this arc, but this is mostly accomplished within the first ten minutes. The film’s exploration of these sort of themes runs deeper and is portrayed with more nuance. It’s crucial that the film is willing to be flexible with its allegory. Early on, the predators are presented as analogous to white people, former power holders who have given up officially exorcising in brutality but still engage in certain forms of oppression and prejudiced thinking. However at times the predators are more analogous to non-white groups who are unjustly labeled as “savage” by a fearful, xenophobic public. Both takes are insightful and are integrated into the film nicely.

These blurred lines are also crucial to the film’s argument of recognizing and combatting one’s own prejudices. Even the heroic and adorable Judy is guilty of falling back on discriminatory instincts and this becomes a major part of the third act. Given that most “kids’ movies” are content to merely say “racism is bad” and call it a day, it’s good to see one that can be a little more reflective and critical. Even the end message of the film is not as simple as “and then racism was defeated forever”. Rather, the end message is to continually be vigilant, always working to confront and overcome their own prejudices and simultaneously fighting discrimination within one’s society. Some might criticize the ending for being too optimistic or naïve, but it does at least grapple with the complicated nature of racial division. There are all sorts of little details which speak to the themes of racial division, like one character playing with a sheep’s hair without permission (similar to the ways in which whites will sometimes touch black people’s hair), imagery which is vaguely reminiscent of Black Lives Matter protest, and lines like, “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point in trying to be anything else”. The fact that all of this material is handled with nuance and at the same time presented in terms most children should be able to understand is itself an accomplishment.

I don’t know if this will ever have the lasting impact of Frozen, but for my money, Zootopia is easily the best film of Disney animation’s second renaissance and one of the best family films of the decade. It works very well as an animated buddy-cop/adventure movie that exorcises some real visual creativity while also exploring important social territory. It’s not a perfect film. I mentioned earlier that it throws out some lame jokes and the fact that the end credits play over a stupid dance number is pretty cringey, but these criticisms come largely from personal taste. More to the point, these are really little things. The actual content of Zootopia is largely great. This is a film that provides all the visual splendor and fun you want from a big-budget animated family movie, and it’s also very smart.

A-

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