Zootopiaby Alex Stroup, staff writer
It's best to walk into a movie as a blank slate. With no preconceptions, minimal exposure to trailers and marketing. Just sit down, let the lights go down, and find out what happens next. That said, a side benefit of having too many preconceptions producing a strong feeling of dread does open the door to the unique pleasure of having expecations wildly exceeded.
Zootopia definitely delivered well beyond modest expectations. A world is presented where humanity never existed, and in our absence, the rest of the mammalian world evolved so that they could all coexist without eating each other. They also walk upright, wear clothes (such that a nudist yoga-practicing elephant might be scandalous), and speak a common language.
Official movie trailer for "Zootpia" (2016). © Walt Disney Animation Studios.
In this world is the megacity of Zootopia and its many biomes, allowing all of the animal kingdom to live in one bustling town.
Our protagonist in Zootopia is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who grew up on a carrot farm in the sticks. True to the timid nature of rabbits, her parents try to dissuade her ("The secret to happiness is quickly giving up on dreams") but Judy is determined to join the Zootopia Police Department and help others. And if a rabbit has never in history been a police officer? Well, then she'll just have to be the first.
One training montage later, Judy Hopps is valedictorian of her academy class and reporting for her first day with the ZPD. Where she runs smack dab into the casual racism... er speciesism... of Chief Bogo her water buffalo of a boss (Idris Elba). He doesn't feel that a rabbit can do the job, and so immediately shuttles Judy off to meter maid duty.
She's the best meter maid she can be, but she's also appropriately dissatisfied with her treatment.
Therein is the core of why Zootopia succeeds so much better than expected. It is a glossy world, yes, but it isn't a perfect one. There's disatisfaction, failure, petty crime. Society gets along reasonably well but is filled with slights big and small. Everybody's learned to live together, but it is an uneasy alliance waiting to fall apart if hit at key pressure points. With only a slight twist of the lens, Zootopia could have been a very dark movie.
Of course, a Disney animated feature isn't going to provide that—but it comes about as close as we're likely to ever get.
Taking advantage of a serendipitous moment, Judy tricks her way onto a missing person case and certain she has no chance of success, Chief Bogo give her 48 hours to solve the case—without official department assistance—or she'll agree to quit the force.
Fortunately for Judy, while doing her meter maid duties she had chance to come across a petty con man (a literal sly fox) by the name of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). She seeks him out, coerces his assistance, and from there on, the movie hits on all the standard beats of a cop-not-a-cop partnership.
Yes, standard. No new ground will be broken in the annals of misfit partnerships. Judy will use her ernestness and cop skills to do some things while Nick's cynicism and street smarts will keep the new clues coming at a lively pace.
This is where too many chefs in the kitchen turns out to produce a mighty fine broth. Byron Howard (Tangled and Bolt), Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and Jared Bush (Big Hero 6) are all credited for directing. Then in addition to the two official screenwriters (Jared Bush again along with Phil Johnston), there are additional writing related credits. And it works.
As Judy and Nick go about solving the case, the screen is chock-a-block with visual and verbal gags. Some are obvious, but most are clever and often driven by the requirements of a world in which mammals live at very different scales. What does a commuter train, they reveal, look like when both mice and giraffes are commuting?
Even better, the jokes are aimed at all levels. A weasel (having done weaselly things) contorting himself in comical ways to elude capture will work best for the 6-year-olds. A scene at the DMV will leave everybody in stitches, and a Godfather parody works much better than a Godfather parody should after 40 years of Godfather parodies. There's even a sly Breaking Bad reference making itself perfectly at home in children's animated entertainment.
Zootopia is a fun movie and well worth an afternoon with the family. But, to be honest, when this world hits the Disney Channel as an animated TV series with Nick and Judy solving crimes together, I think I'll be even more interested in that.
And maybe that show will get around to answering what exactly it is the carnivores in Zootopia eat if it isn’t the other animals.
- Zootopia is a Walt Disney Animation Studios release
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, March 4, 2016
- Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
- Screenplay by Jared Bush, Phil Johnston
- Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons
- Running time: 108 minutes
- Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action
- Alex's rating: 8 out of 10