If there’s anything that Zootopia proves, it’s that going back to the well is often the key ingredient for true inspiration. As the glut of animated movies piles up by the day, you can throw a rock and hit a talking animal who is trying to follow his or her dream. It seems that these creatures are the simplest characters to animate, as we already relate to them as our pets, passions, and yes, even our food. It’s a troupe that’s been done to death and forced itself into a little box of storytelling that leads to dreck like Norm of the North. Zootopia however, has no interest in the box, and instead intends to act as a Che Guevara figure for the genre, and blow that cardboard abomination up completely. Instead of plopping talking animals into our world, the filmmakers have instead created an entire animal civilization of their own, and in doing so have created a film that is better than I suspect even they realize.
The story centers on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town rabbit who wants to leave her farming focussed neighborhood and become a cop in the big city of Zootopia. The only problem? There has never been a rabbit cop before, and she’s certainly not garnering much encouragement from either her parents or her peers. Regardless, she makes her way through the police academy, and ventures off to prove them all wrong. Much to her aggravation, her new Chief (Idris Elba) is not convinced in the slightest, and puts her on parking duty. As Judy attempts to be the best meter maid in Zootopia, she winds up meeting a sly con-artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Although seemingly happy to carry on his care-free existence, Nick reluctantly ends up helping Judy when a missing otters’ case ends up miraculously falling into her lap.
One thing that Disney has done a spectacular job of in their recent films is world-building. Most notably in Wreck It Ralph, they’re created worlds that are both original and intricate for their characters to inhabit. However, any of their previous effort in that department simply pale in comparison to the visual wonder that is this city of Zootopia. An animator’s, and audience member’s dream from end to end, there is always something to look at in this film. There is a painstaking attention to detail paid to every inch of the screen, as these animals adapt to what is essentially their version of a 2016 city. There is a visual gag of some kind going on every couple of seconds, and when the film kicks into the action, you can practically hear the animators laughing in pure joy. It is seriously doubtful that there will be a more creative chase sequence in a film this year than Judy’s pursuit of a thief through a miniature district of the city built for the rodents, which harkens back to the absurdist style of the classic Warner Bros cartoons to the point where if not for technological advancements, it could be confused for one itself.
It would have been very easy to coast on these incredible visuals, but Zootopia goes the extra mile by giving the characters genuine camaraderie and depth. Every time that these characters seem like they’re going to fall into the typical traps that animated characters so often do, they’ll say something that is so much smarter and more refreshing and keep the fantastic pacing going. Goodwin and Bateman frankly make a better buddy cop duo than most live action fixtures in this genre, and are both delightful in their own right. Goodwin’s Judy is upright and optimistic without falling back on the ditziness that Disney often infuses into such female characters, while Bateman’s Nick is a dryly sarcastic sleezeball who ultimately really sells the tragic story that made him so. The supporting cast is also wonderful, particularly Elba as the temperamental and intimidating Chief Bogo. These characters could have been regular people in a live action version of this story, and not much would really have to change. This is the key to selling this entire world. For all of their exaggerated designs and various shapes and sizes, these animals feel human.
The screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston is also razor sharp, constantly keeping the plot moving while never talking down to kids by shying away from the story’s deeper themes. While the majority of the first two acts is essentially a mystery (and a good one at that), the last act of the film takes a sharp turn into a fascinating place that I would not dare spoil. Make no mistake, while Zootopia is first and foremost a comedy, it’s also a film with a lot on it’s mind. It would have been easy to beat the audience over the head with these themes of diversity and discrimination in a lazy, expository way, but they’re brought across by clever turns in the story instead. It’s a tale that will not only entertain kids, but it will also have them asking their parents some pretty difficult questions that will really root out the worthy advice givers.
Zootopia isn’t just a brilliant animated film, but it’s just an amazing film in any respect. It creates a visually stunning world that will have you begging for an art book on the way out of the theater, while also balancing sharp comedy and social commentary in equal measure. This is the type of movie that kids need to see at a young age, something that will both challenge and entertain them for years to come. In fact, my only disappointment here is that Southwest does not sell tickets to Zootopia, as I think it is definitely the place I’ll be moving to if Donald Trump becomes president.