Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J. K. Simmons
Release Date: 25th March 2016 (UK)
Fantastical scenarios have always been a safe way to tackle sensitive issues, so it’s hardly surprising that Disney would set a film about prejudice and discrimination in a city populated by anthropomorphic animals. Indeed, how else does one talk about those subjects without overburdening the narrative with gender, race, ethnicity, religion and other topics you don’t necessarily want in your kids’ movie? Thankfully, no one is likely to be offended by the portrayal of predator-prey segregation in fictional Zootropolis, and so we can (at least for a while) ignore our real-world baggage and enjoy a story both poignant and hilarious.
Zootropolis begins as the underdog tale of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who–despite being a bunny and the daughter of a carrot farmer–aspires to be a police officer. Law enforcement, however, is apparently a role reserved for the more imposing members of the animal kingdom, and even when Judy (against all odds) gets her coveted job, no one takes her seriously. Desperate to prove herself by solving a dead-end case, she employs the help of borderline-criminal fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and the two of them embark on a long investigation. Things, however, quickly get serious as she uncovers a rabies-like contagion that makes predators go feral, threatening to tear apart the otherwise civilized community of Zootropolis.
As is customary for any good mystery, many twists and turns follow. But what’s pleasantly surprising is that the story grows out of its “buddy cop comedy” tropy-ness, and delves into tougher questions, interesting character developments and even large-scale catastrophe. In the beginning, the film promises a variety of settings based on the different climate zones (“Sure, yeah, the kids are going to love this…”), but it ends up delivering even more with the almost gothic horror-themed Cliffside research facility, the “not-a-meth-lab” evil lair, and the extremely appropriate showdown at the Natural History Museum. Nick and Judy’s investigation is also occasionally interrupted by episodes of social satire such as the Department of Motor Vehicles staffed by sloths, the mind-boggling club for nudist animals, the hustlers, bootleggers and other urban peculiarities. While not exactly essential to the plot, those scenes are what makes Zootropolis so relatable.
The technical aspects of the animation are extremely impressive: from the slapstick comedy to the heartfelt emotional climax near the end. The performances’ physicality is on par with the voice acting, occasionally even overshadowing it, and we’re talking about actors of the caliber of J. K. Simmons and Idris Elba here. Zootropolis is also full of original, visually interesting ideas (the slow-motion sloths; the macro-photography look of the hamster town) to go with the more classic design of its main characters. It is, overall, a real feast for the eyes.
If there were an award for most pop-cultural references, this film would be in line to win it. The Godfather and Breaking Bad gags get whole scenes dedicated to them, and there were probably one too many nods to Frozen. The references can be jarring at times, but most of them are funny enough to be forgiven their lack of subtlety. The original jokes, when they come, are even more successful, blending kids’ and adult humour in a non-cringeworthy way.
In the end, it is only fair to point out Zootropolis does have its subtle moments. It does not oversimplify the problem of prejudice, reducing it to good vs. evil. There is an antagonist, yes, but they are not the core of issue. Even the lovable, well-meaning Judy turns out to be subject to her own biases. Zootropolis even challenges its audience at times. Let me give you an example: The film introduces the pop-star Gazelle (performed by Shakira) through billboards and apps, building the image of a brainless diva (the go-to stereotype when it comes to pop stars, really). After this long setup, she finally speaks for a brief interview. Before she has even said a word, the audience starts laughing, expecting the next gag. Instead, she makes a really good point, underscoring the main theme of the film and marking one of its turning points. No one laughs afterwards.