Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore co-directed by Jared Bush
Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnson
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J. K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, and Shakira
Runtime 108 minutes
Disney animated films aren’t known for deeper messages under their plots, except maybe the old ‘be yourself no matter what people say’ trope that shows up in nearly every animated film they make. Now comes Zootopia, a film with that old message but also a story that combats stereotypes and even confronts the people who regularly state ‘I can’t be racist, my best friend is _____’ which is a bold move for a kids movie, yet unlike Crash 11 years ago, this one doesn’t hit you over the head repeatedly without entertaining. Zootopia is endlessly entertaining and is one of the best films of the year so far.
The story focuses on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), an optimistic young rabbit who wants to be Zootopia’s first rabbit police officer. Zootopia is a city where predators and prey live together in publicized harmony (it should also be noted that these animals are all highly evolved, and no humans exist in their world). After being constantly told to give up, Judy perseveres and graduates at the top of her class at the police academy, only to be given parking duty by Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). While overachieving on parking duty, Judy spots Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox trying to buy his son an elephant-sized freeze pop but is being denied service by the elephant running the shop. Judy steps in to correct the injustice, only to trail Nick and discover he’s running a con game. Later, Judy steps in to take a missing animal case, that is tied in with 13 other disappearances of predators, against Bogo’s wishes. She’s given 48 hours to find Emit Otterton or she’s to leave the force. She enlists the aid of Nick, who begrudgingly accepts, and the two set out through the underworld to find clues to Otterton’s location, stumbling upon a large conspiracy that could go all the way to the top brass of the city involving predators turning feral and savage.
The story sounds pretty dark, and it is, but it is not without a lot of humor. The decision to take a children’s animated feature into this dark territory, where prejudices abound against predators by prey and the police service basically used as patsies to further a political agenda and an ethnic cleansing of sorts, is a bold one. What is bolder still is to make it so entertaining while tackling these dark subjects. The screenplay, by co-director Jared Bush and Phil Johnson from a story by Bush, Johnson, directors Howard and Moore as well as Jennifer Lee (writer of Wreck-It Ralph and writer/director of Frozen), Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad and Dan Fogleman, takes on a lot but none of it seems forced. Each of these larger issues that are addressed are organic to the story, set up right at the beginning with a young Judy being bullied by a fox (who, when they’re older, becomes a top-notch pastry chef and apologizes to Judy for the follies of his youth). The innate fear of the predators of the prey despite not having been in those roles for what may have been hundreds of years by this point is indicative of the irrational fears some groups of people have toward others.
The screenplay wouldn’t be able to address these problems if the characters weren’t fully realized, and here they are. No one is one-note, even the side characters. There is genuine emotion when the fluffy desk sergeant Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) is removed from the front desk so a predator isn’t the first thing people see when they walk into the station, despite his only being in a handful of short sequences. The power that comes from Judy not understanding that what she says about predators in her press conference would hurt Nick’s feelings and make him feel persecuted. The characters also use their personality to get a lot of laughs that never undermines the message of the film, nor does it use the stereotypes put forward to get those laughs.
The vocal talent is wonderful here, with everyone sounding great and none of it seems spliced together, as is sometimes the case, getting lines that don’t seem to gel with the rest of the scene. Goodwin and Bateman make a great team, despite the fact that they probably didn’t even meet each other considering that vocal performances are often done alone in a booth.
The directors should also be mentioned for their great work here. they keep the film on-task and never let the darker elements overwhelm the film. They keep the pacing sharp and the jokes quick, knowing when to slow down and let the impact of a scene or a sentence sink in but knowing well enough to not dwell on things for too long. The visual landscape of the film is brilliantly realized and the different climate zones of the city of Zootopia are expertly rendered. Howard and Moore (along with a team of very talented animators) got the look, feel and movement of the animals down pat, even when they are walking on two legs. The look is very innovative and slick, something we’ve come to expect in recent years from Disney’s computer animation (after the operation was taken over by Pixar genius-in-residence John Lassiter).
Zootopia continues Disney Animation’s run of great non-musical animated features like Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 and keeps the pace going for great animated films this year, after Dreamworks’ Kung-Fu Panda 3. It expertly tackles some heady topics that the youngest in the audience won’t likely get, but it introduces the ideas of tolerance and against prejudice in a way that adults can explain current issues by way of this film. It’s an unusual step for Disney, but a welcome one and an encouraging sign of what may come next.