Zootopia, at first glance, is something you’d expect something from Walt Disney Animation Studios, cutesy animals of all shapes and sizes, all running around in a bright fantastical land. Just think of all the merchandising opportunities. Yet, you don’t have to peel much deeper, before the real soul of the film emerges and the heady messages start pouring out.
At its core, Zootopia is a slight deviation of the time honoured buddy cop film. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a recently graduated cop, she is also a rabbit and the first of her kind to be part of Zootopia’s Finest. She is posted to the heart of the animal metropolis that is Zootopia, a bustling city where all animals live in peace and civility. Initially stuck on parking ticket duty, she chances upon an opportunity to investigate a series of mysterious animal disappearances. However, this forces her to work with a cunning fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) an obvious misalliance. As they get closer to the truth, both of them will discover that, not only will the case be at stake but their very natures as civilized animals will be called into question.
One of the treats that separate animation films from its live action counterparts is to witness world building on an absolute colossal scale. There is no set to be built, or hundreds of extras to cast for background shots, while the animating of the world itself is a giant and intense undertaking, it is still feasible in the grander scheme of film production, as compared to live action films. Zootopia as a movie city then, is a technical wonder in animation, every shot is coloured in shades of fruity flavoured Mentos, and packed to the brim with details. Zootopia feels like an actual city, it feels busy, populated by everyone from the littlest office rat to the biggest yoga practicing elephant.
Every character appears to have personality and a life, and not just to serve the story. It is an expanded, animal city version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Even the throwaway gags presents a dense and populated world, when Nick is bootlegging ice cream pops to rat businessmen on the break time, it actually seems like we just caught them in a daily routine. It gives the idea that, the world moves at its own pace, independent from the plot and characters, there is a lot of action in the background if you look hard enough, nothing ever stays still in Zootopia.
The world of Zootopia only gets more interesting but perhaps this gave the narrative an impossible act to follow. It is uneven in its pacing. The first half works as a tour of the city itself, as Judy first arrives in the big city, like us, with awe in her eyes. But as the film progresses, the narrative sags as the world seems to detract and distract from the plot, by the second act the investigation is underway but it is too bland to hold our attention.
After all the animation razzle and dazzle that was on display in the first half, the second establishes the character dynamics between Judy and Nick and it is a dose of mundane familiarity. Their relationship is one we have seen way too many times before, the tried and trite buddy cop formula that we have seen in Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour and a dozen more films of the genre. As the film chugs along, you just want to find out more of the city but outside a few choice scenes, you never do, the plot attempts a last minute volley in the third act, there is one major plot twist towards the finale but it comes too little too late, as the story limps to its finale. It is unfortunate to say this film offers nothing new to the storytelling table.
Another personal gripe, is the villain. As memorable are their heroines and heroes are, Disney films are equally well known for their bad guys. Unfortunately, this is another area Zootopia falls short. I understand that the villain must function for the narrative and the chief villain of Zootopia serves the role well. Yet one could wonder, with such beautiful character designs of these anthropomorphic animals, a villain would have been an absolutely iconic addition to both the film and the illustrious roster of Disney villains.
While Judy and Nick as a screen duo do not work well together, their interactions together are weak and rely heavily on buddy cop conventions, but individually, they are surprisingly captivating as characters. Their individual story arcs are extremely fascinating, watching Judy gradually grow accustom to her new surroundings and breaking the glass ceiling is a real crowd-pleaser. While Nick’s slightly dark backstory is a heartbreaking tale on the consequences of discrimination and prejudice. These are interesting characters in an interesting world, too bad we are following them down a well-worn path that we have been on so many times.
Throwaway gags often steal the narrative’s thunder, they are actually more interesting than the actual story, succeeding in informing the audience of the world and offering a sense of story depth. You just want to see these animals live their lives, and for good reason. We may have seen a lot of things put to film but we never really seen animals behave like us before, and it is both funny and surreal to watch them do so. Along with the aforementioned office rats and ice cream pops, another memorable scene is Judy and Nick venturing to a naturalist spa to find out more about a missing animal, while the scene adds nothing to the plot, the stoner Yak more than makes up for it, and the awkward comedy provides a few laughs.
The sound design is terrific, as it really gives every single species a distinctive sound, adding more character to the story world, be it the ruffling of fur or the clattering of teeth, it adds so much aural ambiance to the picture and make a lot of characters memorable, especially that scene with the sloths, the use of sound could make or break that scene but due to the stellar sound work, it works as comedy. The voices actors give great performances across the board, they actually sound like the animal species of their characters. Gennifer Goodwin’s Judy Hopps is filled with infectious energy, not enough to make her annoying but just good enough to make her likeable. Jason Bateman’s performance is dripping with sly douchebaggery, a perfect fit for Nick Wilde, and Idris Elba blows everyone away with his booming voice as Police Chief Bogo, an authoritative and powerful buffalo. The performances can be too good, J K Simmons adds a regal touch as Mayor Lionheart, a lion. Essentially a cameo, we do not get to see him factor much into the plot although it does leave you wanting to see more of him.
Narrative weaknesses it may have, but the film’s examination of racism and sexism is a welcomed surprise, most kids will not be aware of it but their parents will be. It cuts remarkably deep, several scenes explore these themes of discrimination to the absolute fullest effect, offering cringe-worthy moments, most notably is Hopps’ press conference after she cracks a significant case. You will cringe not because the scene is bad but because you can’t believe we actually say such awful things to one another in real life. This is where animation can pull off scenes that live action movies never could, it can be argued, Zootopia only got away with a scene like that because it was just a talking rabbit rambling about racial profiling. This film hits a little bit close to home but the way I see it, it is absolutely necessary.
Zootopia is an immersive and beautifully realized world. The animation is beautiful and the characters are captivating, it is slightly tragic that the screenplay while serviceable, isn’t on the same level as the rest of the film. But along with its animation and characters, one must also applaud its willingness to tackle heady and controversial themes like race and gender inequality. These animals got quite a bit to say about human behaviour, and Zootopia is extremely relevant to events of today, especially when there are actual human beings out there trying to Make America Great Again.
*** and a half /5
It may have a run-of-the-mill narrative but Zootopia is both beautiful and entertaining. With Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios have another hit on their hands and we have another cinematic world to explore.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/