Here’s a simple claim right off the bat – Zootopia is a true triumph for Disney. The animation studio has had something of a resurgence in recent years with films such as Frozen and Big Hero 6, but Zootopia feels like an actual classic. That is high praise for the Mouse House, but the balance of humor, visuals and social commentary makes Zootpia a stupendous example of what great films can offer.
Following a fine cold open that introduces both the humor that can be found in the film, along with hints at darker elements, we settle down with our lead character, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). She’s a rookie police officer in a world inhabited by anthropomorphized animals. Without being too specific, the story eventually evolves into a buddy cop film that partners up Officer Hopps with con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
Not saying much about the plot does not suggest it’s a weak element, but a lot of joy comes from the discovery by the characters in the film. The story is actually quite intricate and it calls to mind Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That film was a masterful riff on Chinatown, whereas Zootopia plays like a procedural cop drama. There is a good mystery taking place and it feeds into exploring the world these characters inhabit.
And what a world it is. While Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph took a brilliant premise and somewhat limited it by sticking most of the film in just one setting, Zootpia happily reveals a variety of layers to how this world functions, given the variety of animals. It is all beautiful to take in, which nearly goes without saying, but the animation is wonderful. The visual gags are up to the challenge of entertaining and pressuring one to revisit the film, as Zootopia is stacked with broad and inside jokes all over, with plenty that you will likely miss the first time around.
The vocal cast is certainly a huge part of what makes this film work as well. Goodwin makes for a great rookie presence in this world we are introduced to. Her optimistic handling of the material, balanced by an understanding of her backstory plays well in how her character evolves. The same can be said with her partner in crime, Bateman, who brings a careful amount of depth that is typical for roles inhabited by him. Suffice it to say, Bateman is as good as ever at tossing off humorous deadpan lines and backing it with a rich layer of humanity (even while voicing a fox).
It would be all well and good if things stopped there, with Zootopia functioning as a well-made animated comedy, with little else on its mind, but it doesn’t. The layered and insightful social commentary, particularly in regards to race relations is an incredibly bold push that I am happy writers/directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush made the decision to include. Obviously a younger audience will be less aware of what is going on beneath the surface, but for those looking to dig a little deeper, Zootopia is not tough to read into.
Much like Mad Max: Fury Road’s ability to be more than just an action film by incorporating thematic elements such as survival, redemption, climate change, class-based societal upheaval and female empowerment, Zootopia has far more on its mind than just being a goofy kids flick. A running idea of the film involves the relationship between predators and prey. The world features the animals living in harmony, but there is a potent story that unfolds, based on the dynamic that forms between these different species, revealing true intentions and a complicated understanding of this supposed status quo.
It is honestly refreshing and unafraid to take the characters to places that have been explored just as well as heavy dramas that qualify as award contenders. Zootopia literally goes for the jugular in the way it explores what it means to watch righteous anger playout through cleverly animated segments of one character saying or doing hurtful things to another, based on what kind of species they are. I may not have thought this film would be comparable to something like Straight Outta Compton, going in, but there was an easy case to be made afterward.
All of this stands true and the film is still a blast to watch. Make no mistake, no one is sitting you down to teach you a lesson about racial politics through an episode of Law & Order: Walking Animals Unit, Zootopia is a terrific comedy. It happens to explore some wonderful ideas, but it is a terrific balance of characters, story, humor and more. And by the way, you get greats like Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt and more all adding to the proceedings.
Given all the innovation Disney has provided over the decades, it is great to see them churn out a film that can stand as highly as some of their most well-known classics from the early days. Zootopia is fantastic in nearly every way and earns plenty of admiration for having something to say.