By Jordan Canahai
The initial trailers for Disney animations cute and clever Zootopia, which as of this writing has toppled Frozen to have the studio’s highest grossing opening weekend ever, displayed no lack of subtlety to make sure children in the audience understood the film’s premise: Animals exist just like humans in the world of Zootopia; they walk, talk, wear cloths, and have everyday interactions with species they might otherwise eat in the real world. The film’s title city is a bustling animated metropolis where evolved animals have set aside their differences to coexist peacefully in civilization. Distinctions between predator and prey are no more, all creatures live in harmony, and gone are the dark days when furry friends had to concern themselves with their respective standing on the food chain.
The movie’s hero is the plucky Judy Hopps (voiced by a very well cast Ginnifer Goodwin) whose ambitions to become a police officer despite the fact there’s never been a bunny cop frequently cause family and friends to invoke history, as stereotypes suggest her species aren’t cut out for such work. The story, setting, and characters of Zootopia are all established in a way to support the theme of overcoming prejudice and old ways of thinking. It’s a positive message, if one the film lays on heavily enough so it will be obvious to even the youngest audience members. Zootopia quickly adopts the formula of a buddy cop movie when the rookie detective encounters sarcastic street hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who tests her own prejudices and preconceived notions as the mismatched pair must team up to solve the film’s central mystery concerning a recent string of disappearances (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit-lite in terms of plot and you’re on the right track.)
Zootopia boasts a vibrant art style and the film’s setting has been effectively brought to life by the animation team in a manner which fittingly recalls a sprawling Disney amusement park, complete with various districts that are host to different animals based on climate and geography. I also liked how as the plot of Zootopia progresses and Judy and Nick’s detective work takes them deeper into the city’s urban spaces the brightly colored visuals give way to more classic Hollywood noir-inspired imagery. Sadly, the overall story of the film is ultimately less interesting than the central themes of race and tensions between different ethnic groups. I also found that, for as frequently clever as Zootopia was, adults might find it lacking in big laughs, as well as memorable set pieces (though I did enjoy a foot chase sequence in which Judy chases a rodent from one district to a smaller-scaled neighborhood.) As far as the best American animation in recent years goes, Zootopia is a step down from Pixar’s finest efforts such as Inside/Out, Disney’s previous smash Wreck-It Ralph, or The Lego Movie, instead being on the level of more standard fare such as Brave and Big Hero 6. Still, kids are sure to love Zootopia, it features solid voice acting from the leads and is packed with Disney in-jokes that pop-savvy viewers will definitely appreciate. While there’s little here adults haven’t seen in superior kid-friendly animated films, the team of writers (some of whose previous credits include The Simpsons and Futurama) should be applauded for transcending the simple “believe in yourself” moral of most children films and attempting to make young audiences think about some real world issues.