Director : Byron Howard + Rich Moore
Year Of Release : 2016
Principal Cast : Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, JK Simmons, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Nate Torrence, Shakira, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Alan Tudyk, Tom Lister Jr, Maurice LaMarche, Raymond S Persi, Kristen Bell.
Approx Running Time : 108 Minutes
Synopsis: In a city of anthropomorphic animals, a rookie bunny cop and a cynical con artist fox must work together to uncover a conspiracy.
Listen to “Try Everything” performed by Shakira, from the Zootopia Original Soundtrack
The Disney money-train just keeps on chugging. Despite owning virtually every IP known to man, Disney’s recent success in the animated film market, for the longest time driven by Pixar whilst the studio’s own animation division was slumped over their inkwells, struggling to match the 3D CGI juggernauts on the big screen around the globe, has become a phenomenon. Although a few critical missteps were taken early – Bolt and Chicken Little we’re looking at you – in more recent times the studio’s output has rivalled even Pixar and Dreamworks for cross-cultural saturation of the animated marketplace. Tangled saw the second renaissance of Disney arrive, cemented by the ubiquitous Frozen with its showstopping musical soundtrack and strong feminist overtones, as well as Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6; this resurgence continues boldly with Zootopia, possibly the animated film to beat in 2016.
Set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, Zootopia sees young bunny Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) set her sights on becoming a police officer with the Zootopia Police Department, a feat never before achieved by a bunny. Zootopia sees animals evolved to the point where the old ways of hunter and prey are overridden, with animals of all species living (supposedly) harmoniously together. Arriving at her posting at the city’s 1st Precinct, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) issues her with parking fine detail, which Hops is proficient at; during the course of her duties, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a street hustler and con-artist whom Hops blackmails into helping assist her in breaking a case of missing animals across the city. Together with the help of the city’s assistant mayor, Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate), Hops and Nick discover a plan to turn the city’s hunters back into the vicious killing machines they once were and upset the delicate balance of peace across Zootopia.
Zootopia comes along at a pretty prescient moment in human history. Okay, so considering an animated film as important a touchstone for our world as MLK’s march of freedom or the onset of World War II is stretching things a bit, but with the modern rise of racial tensions in the USA (#BlackLivesMatter), xenophobia through the mass migration of displaced people throughout the Middle East, and the deterioration of the global economy overall, Zootopia is a salve for audiences to perhaps reconnect with their inner humanity thanks to a canny screenplay, deft animation, and a superb voice cast bringing these characters to life. Am I overstating the power Zootopia has to affect real-world change? Probably, but I live in hope. Flush with subtext about difference, racism (specism here) and collective prejudice, Zootopia is in many ways one of the bravest Disney projects yet released by a studio infamously averse to rocking the politically incorrect boat.
Were one a cynical bastard, one might suggest that Zootopia ain’t that clever to hide its obvious subject matter’s more humanized themes and commentary. Fact is, the film doesn’t try and hide what it’s trying to say in spite of the crazy characters, breathtaking landscape and world-building animation, or darker thematic material: what the film does so brilliantly is make itself accessible to both young and older audiences alike. The little kids will still goggle at the funny voices, silly characters and charming anthropomorphized brilliance of a world so closely attuned to our own, while adults will enjoy the in-jokes, vastly pointed social commentary and delightfully silly characters. You know, because silly characters just work. Especially sloths. This film is worth it for a single scene alone – Hops and Nick attempt to get car registration information from an “insider” at the DMV, a DMV staffed by sloths, who are reknowned as the slowest creatures on Earth. Gut-bustingly uproarious, this is the moment I knew the film was working for me.
In dealing with themes of prejudice and xenophobia, Zootopia comes at the best possible time. The play on “utopia” in the title isn’t an accident – the city of Zootopia is superficially a paradise of interspecies mixing, with all manner of animals living shoulder to shoulder where normally they would not, and although the Mayor (voiced by a wonderful JK Simmons) might pretend otherwise, not all is well with the world if you just peek behind the façade. As with any multi-cultural society, differences often breed discontent, and the film doesn’t shy away from this: a single line of dialogue still reverberates around my brain even now, that of Hops “Real life is messy”, perhaps the most pertinent thing ever uttered in a Disney film, ever. Yes, life is messy, and it’s a moment of contemplation that gives the film license to go somewhere very few Disney films have before, at least exploring via animals our collective humanity. What Zootopia inspires in its young audience (hopefully) is a message of tolerance and more importantly acceptance. The characters in Zootopia aren’t concerned with skin colour or the number of limbs, or fur or feathers; they’re concerned by the dualism of hunters and prey, a literal dark versus light motif that simplifies things for the youngsters without making it too easy. Hell, listen to Shakira’s bouncing closing credit song (in the player above: now! Go on!) and listen to the lyrics – it’s about never giving up, accepting that you’ll fail but realising that your journey won’t stop just because you might. Hearty values to live by, if you ask me.
Story and subtext aside, the film works well enough even as a simple adventure mystery film. Hops is a delightful Disney heroine, a character of fortitude who values herself more than those around her do, and strives to be better than is expected of someone of her species. Rather than be a princess, Hops achieves her dream of being a cop (not a spoiler, it happens in the first ten minutes…) and shows strength of character in spite of the raging indifference to her from those of “superior” breeding, race or standing. Her screen co-star, wily fox Nick Wilde (a terrific Jason Bateman, who sounds a lot like a more energetic George Clooney here.. heh), a creature of accepted low standing resigned to his fate as one of natures least trusted inhabitants. His skill as a street hustler is indicative of how he’s seen by those around him, and it takes some moments of introspective understanding by Hops to break through his steely emotional exterior. Both central characters exhibit traits we’ve all encountered, and represent another sense of duality for humanity – hope, and that of hopelessness – it’s interesting to see them work together successfully to thwart a plan borne of jealousy and resentment.
The film’s voice cast is just superb. Goodwin and Bateman aside, the supporting roster is astutely selected. JK Simmons plays the Mayor of Zootopia, a lion, while Idris Elba’s police Chief Bogo is one of the more memorable characters in the film. Octavia Spencer is lovely as poor Mrs Otterman, whose husband is one of those animals missing, presumed kidnapped. Nate Torrence is hilarious as the precinct’s dispatcher, Officer Clawhauser (an overweight, possibly queer Cheetah), and there’s a nice little riff on Brando in The Godfather (sigh – yes, again, and I have to question how many of the kiddies will even get the reference) with Maurice LeMarche as a powerful Mafioso shrew. Listen out for Alan Tudyk as a weasel criminal of Zootopia (one of the film’s best two in-jokes about Frozen comes from him) and Kristen Bell as a minor cameo as a female sloth at the DMV.
Look, I could rave about Zootopia all day. It’s a terrific film even without the on-point subtext and social commentary, and stands alone as one of the more adult themed films the studio has yet produced. That adultiness is shrouded by a stunning display of animation and vocal dexterity, brought into the open at key moments of the film’s vibrant plotting and quixotic elements of forging ahead; the balance between sublime and sledgehammer storytelling has been found, and the 2016 version is Zootopia, a thoroughly entertaining, brilliantly written, deliciously animated film that deserves multiple viewings by those who abhor tolerance and admire exclusion.
© 2016, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.