Movie Review: Zootopia
Disney - what other film company also manages to be its own genre? Even with that reputation, Disney has been mixing it up recently with mostly positive results - Wreck-it-Ralph was funny, Frozen was a smash that needs no introduction by this point, Big Hero 6 was an enjoyable superhero romp. So how does Zootopia stack up? Admittedly, the marketing was attention-grabbing. Trailers often show many clips as a way of introducing viewers to the world of the film. Major films like The Force Awakens and Batman vs. Superman commonly receive shot-by-shot analyses by viewers. One of the big trailers for Zootopia - instead lingered on one scene. In a way, it was effective as it prompted questions: What is the movie about? This scene is pretty funny, if this is what they show us, what else is in the movie? For that matter, what is the context of this scene? With a trailer like this, is the rest of the movie any good?
Zootopia may come off like a silly film about a world full of animals, but there is more to it. Much of the movie is actually a mystery. Judy Hops is a rabbit who wants to be a cop despite her small size. Hard work and perseverance pay off, and Judy lands a job as... a meter maid. After overstepping her bounds, Judy ends up the only one able to solve a missing person's case - with the ultimatum that she will be fired if she fails. Hops teams up with Nick Wilde, a con artist fox she meets on the job. The two use their unique skills to crack the case, only to discover things go deeper than a missing otter.
To start off with, the premise of Zootopia works because the people behind the scenes ran with the premise. This is not just a world of anthropomorphic animals. The characters have realistic proportions - elephants and rhinos are big characters while mice and rabbits are small. These may sound like one note jokes, but it leads to some really creative moments such as a foot chase in a small town. This scene is just old school cartoon action - the reactions, the slapstick, the timing, the expressions are all spot on for a high energy scene. Another plus is the setting. The world of Zootopia has several subworlds, meaning the heroes spend most of the movie in a city but also visit a rural area, a jungle and the arctic. It gives a pretty big feel to what could have been a simple mystery story. The world has a fun Flintstones vibe with the way the animals make their world work - such as an ice cream shop where elephants use their trunks to create monstrous ice cream confections.
The two lead characters are quite enjoyable too, with personalities that play off each other well. Judy is the plucky, optimistic dreamer with a good heart. Nick is a sly con artist played by Jason Bateman. Bateman is often remembered for playing everyman characters, but here he shows an incredible knack for playing smarmy. The two leads have great chemistry with Nick using his street savvy and Judy using her police savvy to solve the case. Both characters' skills come in handy at different times while both characters are also able to outsmart each other times. It may not be the first time this has been done, but this is a formula that has aged like fine wine.
Zootopia's humor is mostly good. The film has legit laugh-out loud moments. That sloth trailer was only ONE of the many funny scenes. However, even if many of the jokes were genuinely funny, not every joke hit a bullseye. For what it's worth, I saw this film with its target audience and they laughed more than I did. However, the film has enough charm to make up for not every joke being a hit. For example, there is a character named Mr. Big, whose entire gimmick is an all-too obvious punchline and a somewhat dated Godfather reference (Having grown up with Animaniacs, I'm not against this kind of joke on principal, but I think anyone would understand the joke has probably seen a zillion Godfather spoofs by now). Even so, the character is endearing enough to overcome these problems. There are also a few in-jokes that felt a little too obvious. Maybe younger audiences will like them because they recognize the jokes.
So Zootopia sounds like a cute, funny animated romp, right? That is technically accurate, but not the whole story. Zootopia is also a clever allegory for racism with prey animals such as rabbits and otters not getting along with predatory animals such as foxes and lions. (For the record, this is not a spoiler - the cards are placed on the table early on.) The social commentary works because the comparison is easily identifiable as real life racial conflicts but the film is never too ham-fisted in its delivery. The young innocents who are lucky enough to not be wise to these real world problems yet may just view this as a good story about about learning to accept others.
On that note, slapping a PG on family friendly films has been a pet peeve of mine for years. However, Zootopia is a shining example of why this is a problem. For years, the MPAA has been crying wolf with the PG rating on kids' movies. So parents who might mistake this as having the same squeaky clean content of Frozen or Inside Out might encounter a little sticker shock. Zootopia features allegories for racism, but also drugs, and even a little innuendo. Even if it is written in a way children will be able to understand, much of the film is written at an adult level.
Overall, Zootopia is an excellent animated film - kids should enjoy the vibrant colorful energy. Adults can appreciate the social commentary, and both should appreciate the genuinely funny moments and manic energy. In a sea of recent superb Disney films, Zootopia stands tall with the rest of its catalog.
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