After the runaway success of revisionist fairy-tale ‘Frozen’, Disney Animation – long considered the less successful younger sibling of Pixar – appeared to have the wind in its sails. ‘Big Hero 6’ kept their streak rolling, with a vibrant and heartfelt tribute to comic books and science. With ‘Zootopia’, they show no signs of slowing down, delivering a mash-up of buddy cop tropes, noir detective tales and fuzzy critters that will have the whole family entertained (and, as is becoming par for the course, slightly educated).
We find ourselves in an alternate universe where anthropomorphised animals live together in harmony, predators and prey evolved beyond their baser instincts. Judy Hopps, a rabbit voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, has finally achieved her dream of becoming a police officer in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia. She is the first of her species to do so, tackling an occupation traditionally occupied by larger creatures – her colleagues include elephants, rhinos and bears. Much to her chagrin and her rural, carrot-farming parents’ relief, she is placed on meter maid duty, the safest job available.
Of course there is a larger mystery at hand. Over a dozen predators have gone missing in the previous weeks, leaving behind little in the way of clues. When Judy manages to throw herself into the lead on one of the cases, she ropes in sly con man and fox Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, to help her. There is some apprehension on Judy’s part, as she was slashed by a fox bully as a child, and had the mantra that foxes and rabbits were mortal enemies drummed into her growing up. However, she puts aside their traditional animosity to focus on the investigation.
To delve into more details about the crime in question would be to disservice the effort the screenwriters have clearly put into crafting a layered treat, full of homages (see ‘The Godfather’, ‘Chinatown’ et al.), but suffice to say there is a conspiracy afoot with far greater reach than anticipated. Their script is also laden with terrific gags, which elicited multiple big belly laughs in my screening, even when going for obvious animal puns (which was surprisingly light on youngsters – one for all ages then!).
The animation on display is a technical masterclass, bursting with colour and detail. Zootopia is divided into segments, including Tundra Town, Sahara Square and Rainforest District, and each comes loaded with its own personality and distinct look. The writers and designers fill each frame with gags – look out for shop signs advertising ‘Hoof Locker’, ‘Frozen Yakghurt’ and so on – and fast-paced set pieces that make the most of the medium’s ability to render anything imaginable. A rabbit cop chasing a thieving weasel through Little Rodentia, a miniature town populated by tiny rodents, and ‘inciting a scurry’? Check.
The voice cast also impress – Goodwin is irrepressibly upbeat but delivers an amazing moment of quiet heartbreak in the final act, approaching one of the finest voice acting moments this reviewer has ever seen. Bateman is perfectly cast as Wilde, part slick wheeler dealer, part down on his luck charmer with a good heart. Other choices are equally inspired, notably Idris Elba as gruff water buffalo Chief Bogo, and Shakira as singing superstar Gazelle (responsible also for the catchy credits song ‘Try Everything’).
Many of my reviewing colleagues have lauded the film’s positive message, which ostensibly teaches youngsters that they can be anything they want to be. It doesn’t matter that you’re a small rabbit – you can be a crime fighting police officer. It doesn’t matter that you’re an enormous elephant – you can be a forgetful yoga instructor. However, the internal logic of the inspirational message doesn’t quite add up. This message, while well meaning, ultimately gets diluted to kind of say that stereotypes exist for a reason, and sometimes battling against them can take a back-breaking amount of time, effort and patience. This is not the wholehearted message of empowerment I expected after the film’s early press, but that’s not to say it’s ill intentioned. It just might not add up quite as hoped.
This final point takes little away from the film, which is a blast from start to finish. With a well-timed release just before the school holidays, ‘Zootopia’ probably will and deserves to play to a lot of family moviegoers. There’s little doubt then that both parents and kids alike will want to join me and cheer, ‘Long live Disney Animation!’
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting