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Review: Zootopia (2016)

Zootopia (2016)

Directed by: Byron Howard and Rich Moore and Jared Bush

Premise: An animated film. In a city populated by animals, a small rabbit (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) defies the odds and becomes a police officer. She teams up with a fox (voice of Jason Bateman) to investigate a series of missing persons.
What Works:  Zootopia comes from Walt Disney Animation Studios whose output has recently been on the upswing with titles like Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph. Zootopia continues that impressive roll and it shows the influence of Disney’s animation subsidiary Pixar. Some of the Pixar influence is apparent from the credits. Zootopia co-screenwriter Jim Reardon had been a writer on Wall-E, executive producer John Lasseter had directed Toy Story, and Zootopia features a musical score by Michael Giacchino who had composed the soundtracks for Up and Ratatouille. The Pixar effect is apparent in Zootopia’s animation and its story. The look of Zootopia is quite good. The characters have a lot of nuance in their performances and there are many subtle details in their posture, movement, and facial expressions that give these animals an interior life. The environment of Zootopia is grand cityscapes with impressive attention invested in the details and there are plenty of clever plays on real life products and institutions. The story of Zootopia has full-fledged characters that are multi-dimensional and who face complex conflicts. In that respect, the movie is admirable in its intelligence and the way that it challenges the audience. Zootopia is about a young person from a rural background who moves to the city in pursuit of her dream; Judy Hopps, a rabbit, dreams of becoming a police officer and with hard work and determination she achieves that goal. But upon arriving in the city of Zootopia she finds that her academic achievements don’t mean so much to those who have preconceived ideas about what she can and cannot do. To solve the case, Officer Hopps must work with a fox named Nick and the leporid law enforcer discovers that she also has preconceived ideas about other animal species. It does not require a great deal of sophistication to understand that this story is intended to be an allegory about racism and sexism. Like the original run of Planet of the Apes films, Zootopia presents these ideas in a way that is entertaining and accessible and the social messages percolate through the drama without being too overstated.

What Doesn’t: Zootopia struggles with its tone. Because it is full of anthropomorphic furry creatures, it’s easy to get the impression that Zootopia is a kid’s film. It isn’t. The plot of this story is more sophisticated than that and very young viewers may have trouble following the narrative twists. Like a lot of animated films some mature jokes appear on the sly in a way that will entertain adults but go over the heads of the younger viewers. This is done well except in a protracted sequence that references The Godfather; this particular scene is like something out of a Shrek-era DreamWorks Animation title and it is out of place in the movie. Zootopia is also likely to scare young viewers. Officer Hopps and Nick discover that some of the predatory species are reverting back to a savage state of nature. These scenes are legitimately frightening, with scares equivalent to the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio. The scariness of these sequences isn’t in itself bad but the severity of the scare is way off from the lighter tone of the rest of the movie. It also should be said that Zootopia works with themes like racism and sexism that are so big and complex that it isn’t able to do them justice. This is an interesting problem for the movie. The makers of Zootopia deserve a lot of credit for putting these big ideas into a movie like this but at the same time, the way that Zootopia resolves those issues is oversimplified.

Bottom Line: Zootopia may be better for older viewers than its cuddly protagonists would indicate but it is an impressive and intelligent picture. The film is able to be a satisfying family movie while also being softly subversive.

Episode: #587 (March 20, 2016)