With the notable exception of last year’s downright masterful ‘Inside Out’, Disney’s namesake animation label has been cranking out movies with more consistent quality and ambition than Pixar in recent years. That’s undoubtedly because Pixar founder John Lasseter took over the Disney ship right around the same time that his own studio started cranking out corporately mandated sequels. Still, it’s been odd to see the recent streak of Disney animated films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’, ‘Frozen’, and now the delightful ‘Zootopia’ frequently beat Pixar at its own game.
‘Zootopia’ might even be the finest of the recent crop of new Disney classics. It might not have the songs or classicism of ‘Frozen’, but it has brains and humor to spare. It’s a delight and should win over more than just the kiddies.
As usual, ‘Zootopia’ is an anthropomorphized animal movie from the Disney dream factory, only this time with more of a purpose. The title city is a massive metropolis of animals of all sorts. Long ago, a peace was made between predator and prey, so now all call live together in one giant melting pot featuring neighborhoods of every climate and size.
Our heroine is a bunny named Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) who always dreamed of being a cop despite common prejudice against tiny and fuzzy animals on the force. Thanks to years of hard work and dedication (as well as a mammal inclusion initiative), Judy gets to live her dream in the big city. Of course, it’s not easy. Her big bull boss (Idris Elba) doesn’t take her seriously enough to assign her anything other than traffic duty. Judy isn’t above prejudice, either. She’s always been distrustful of foxes until she ends up forming an unlikely partnership with one named Nick (Jason Bateman). Together they hunt down a series of missing animals and uncover a conspiracy to unlock the natural savage instinct of predators (something that Nick obviously takes offense to).
As you may have gathered, this isn’t merely an “Ain’t animals funny when they act like people?” movie (though there is plenty of that and we’ll get there in a second). ‘Zootopia’ is pretty overtly about prejudice. Intriguingly, it’s a surprisingly evenhanded movie about the subject, exploring how even those in oppressed minority groups can foster their own prejudices that are just as hurtfully misguided. In an age when Presidential candidates are running campaigns exploiting hate and the internet is driven by increasingly irrational social outrage clickbait, this bright and colorful Disney cartoon feels like a remarkably insightful little movie. Given how long the production schedules stretch for CGI features, there’s no way that co-directors Bryon Howard (‘Tangled’) and Rich Moore (‘Wreck-It Ralph’, ‘The Simpsons’) could have known they were making a movie of the moment, but it happened and it’s impressive. In a weird way, ‘Zootopia’ plays like a more cuddly and inclusionary version of a ‘South Park’ episode. It’s not biting satire, but it does take equal opportunity to criticize both sides of the issue and that’s exactly what we need right now.
Of course, I can pontificate all day about the complicated exploration of prejudice examined in the movie, but that isn’t exactly the main selling point of this Disney family feature. First up, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. The studio has found its own aesthetic over the last few movies, not quite as detailed as Pixar and a little brighter and friendlier, but it’s no less smooth and luscious. It looks extraordinary on a big screen. Each and every character is designed with that patented Disney mixture of playful humor and almost oppressive cuteness. Howard and Moore stage some gloriously goofy action scenes (often playing with the shifting scale of a bunny dwarfed by Rhinos, who then towers over rodent cities like a Godzilla) as well as some spectacular comedy set-pieces. (One sequence involving sloths in the DMV feels destined to become a viral video and meme factory.) The voice cast are all wonderfully chosen to type from Goodwin’s relentless charm to Bateman’s bitter sarcasm and Elba’s playful intimidation. ‘Zootopia’ features everything you’ve come to love about Disney and does it well.
That’s not to say that the movie is perfect. For one thing, it has a very grating subplot featuring Shakira as a gazelle pop star only so that the movie can conclude with a music video for a single to be sold on iTunes. At times, Moore’s love of movie spoofs becomes a bit tedious. (Ain’t ‘Godfather’ parodies hilarious?!) The detective story plotting gets a little too neatly wrapped up toward the end for the sake of succinctness and, as happens in any animated film with a social message, you should expect some preachiness. Much like how all of the film’s finest qualities are pulled directly from the Disney playbook, so too are all of its drawbacks. These problems are practically inevitable and the reason why the best of Disney Animation still can’t quite match the best of Pixar.
Regardless, ‘Zootopia’ is a genuinely pleasant surprise. It might be yet another talking animal cartoon about acceptance, but at least it’s one that approaches that theme with unexpected complexity, delightful comedy and mountains of charm. There will soon come a time when Disney starts sequelizing all the wonderful work it has done over the last five years and we’ll grow disappointed once more. For now, it’s nice to know that the studio that invented feature-length Hollywood animation can still claim to be one of the very best in the game.