Review: 'Zootopia' is a Reminder of How Great Animated Films Can Be
by Jeremy Kirk
March 5, 2016
The Pixar train has been running so fast and furiously the past couple of decades you'd almost be justified in forgetting about Disney's own animation studio. It's hard to believe we're 20 years or so removed from Disney being the strongest force when it comes to animated features. They do make themselves known every now and again, and their latest work, Zootopia, is a strong reminder of the quality in entertainment Disney can achieve when they flex their animators' skills. A consistently funny narrative littered with interesting characters and a healthy message to boot, Zootopia makes even the latest efforts from Pixar – The Good Dinosaur, at least – seem childish by comparison. It's no revelation that Disney was first when it comes to animation, but it's a nice surprise to see them reclaim such a title when they finish a project such as this.
Going back to one of their tried and true models, Zootopia is set in a world populated by anthropomorphic mammals, wild creatures who have evolved human qualities some time after the actual human race has apparently vanished from the planet. The diversity in the animals inhabiting this world is a natural quality of the population, but the prejudices and stereotypes instilled in each of them is one, more humanistic quality the creatures of this world have taken on. Rabbits can only be vegetable farmers. Foxes are sly and can never be trusted. Only the strongest and most vicious animals can take on the jobs of protective roles or law enforcement.
That latest stereotype doesn't sit well with Judy Hopps, a country rabbit voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. From an early age she dreams of becoming a police officer, her ability and desire to protect those who can't protect themselves making itself known even at an early age. Judy up and moves from the country to the bustling city of Zootopia. She's instantly met with resistance from the larger and physically stronger mammals on the force, notably Chief Bogo, a buffalo voiced by Idris Elba, who immediately assigns the rabbit to parking duty. This assignment is short-lived, though, as Judy, along with her new friend Nick Wilde, a con artist fox voiced by Jason Bateman, they stumble upon a conspiracy within Zootopia that finds the carnivorous mammals devolving back to their savage ways.
With eight, credited screenwriters and three directors, you might be reluctant with Zootopia at first. Such a list of credits is often an indication of a forthcoming mess of a picture. Instead, directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush – getting a co-director credit – pull the screenplay together to create an intriguing, what-if world and an equally exciting mystery within it. The mystery Judy and Nick attempt to unravel has all the markings of good film noir and the atmosphere and character required in all good, detective stories. The filmmakers utilize the variety of animals with which they have to play to create an endlessly entertaining cast of characters, each adding more to the humor of the film than the last.
Beyond the pitch-perfect comedy and engrossing mystery of its story, though, Zootopia brings an opportune message about stereotyping and prejudice. Some of the more heavy-handed bits of dialogue may be lost on younger viewers, but that isn't stopping the film from making a statement for older audience members to explain. That's important. It's the aspect that sets films like Zootopia apart from the fine entertainment the animated world still offers. With only the surface-level story, endless bouts of humor, and wide-ranging characters that'll have your average five-year-old running to the Disney Store, we might have an early candidate for best animated film of the year. The messages and subtext about social assumptions and acceptance make Zootopia a clear nominee for the title so far, and it'll be difficult to beat.
The subtext adds layer upon layer to the already richly developed world in Zootopia. Added to this is remarkable work from some of the finest animators working today. The different sections of the city give them as much an opportunity to bring varying, geographical locations to animated life as they have the animal life. The fur on those animals is some of the most photorealistic of its kind, by the way. All of this comes together to make Zootopia a first-class work of entertainment from Disney Animation. The company that started it all should remind the world more often why they are the kings of the animated jungle.