Zootopia (Zootropolis)

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba and Jenny Slate
In UK Cinemas March 25th, 2016

by Richard Hamer

I hope we can all agree that we’ve entered a new golden age of Walt Disney Studios. Whether they’ve returned to the height of their 90’s powers – where hits like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King were released with a dizzying frequency – is a subject for debate. At the very least, the dark days of The Emperor’s New Groove and Home on The Range are now long in the past.

While Frozen represents Disney at the peak of their traditional musical form, Zootopia is comfortably the finest example of family adventure animation that they’ve been honing through Wreck it Ralph and Big Hero Six. It’s a family movie that finally sees Disney perfecting – and in some ways surpassing – the lessons they’ve learnt from Pixar. It’s funny and colourful in all the ways a kid’s movie should be, but also placed in a world so well thought out and thorougly explored that there is a real richness and depth to it.

Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rookie police officer, new to the huge, bustling city of Zootropolis; home to millions of anthropomorphised animals of all species. The first rabbit officer ever employed by the ZPD, she finds herself shunned by the top brass – she’s a ‘stunt’ hire, employed in the name of species diversity – and quickly relegated to traffic duty. But soon Judy ends up embroiled in a missing persons case, and – enlisting the help of local con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) – descends into the criminal underworld of Zootropolis in a search for the truth.

Simply taken as a family adventure, Zootopia is wonderful. The animation is sublime, the city filled with a myriad of sight gags and all the kinds of little background details that give it the feeling of a city that works, a city that – absurd as it is – kind of makes sense.

And it’s also funny; brilliantly funny. It’s the mark of a great comedy that one scene – in which Judy and Nick enter a DMV to run a license plate, only to find the entire office staffed by incredibly slow moving sloths – has been spoilt in at least two trailers, yet is still laugh-out-loud, painfully funny. Zootopia is filled with gags like this, the notion of ‘what would happen if animal x/y/z lived in a big city’ milked for every good joke it’s worth.

What surprises with Zootopia, however, are the themes that Disney has chosen to explore with it. This is a movie whose themes are wide-ranging and almost shockingly topical. Racial and gender stereotyping, prejudice, xenophobia; this is Disney at their most subversive, sitting down with the words “A city where hundreds of different animals are living together” and thinking about what that really means.

It’s played far from subtley. Zootopia is most definitely a ‘message movie’, and that isn’t anyhow a bad thing here due to how thoroughly and consistently it reinforces these ideas. From an early gag in which Judy chastises a fellow officer for calling her a ‘cute rabbit’ – initially ignored as a throwaway pop-culture feminisim gag – all the way to its borderline race riot finale, Zootopia fills every inch of its story and its dialogue with hints at the tension beneath the surface. If anything, that is the real genius of what it does: while it must inevitaby pull its punches as a kid’s film, and it doesn’t ultimately have much ‘new’ to say, what it does highlight is that invisible prejudice that exists in our society: all those little things we casually say or do that – individually taken as jokes – can in the end add up to something far more sinister.

As a movie, it manages to satisfy as a silly kid’s action film while simultaneously achieveing much more, and never doing one at the expense of the other. One could chastise it for not going far enough: there is an inevitable pantomine villain ‘behind it all’ in a way that doesn’t undermine the film’s message, but does at least draw too neat a line beneath it. Also, while it’s successful as an action comedy, it is less so as a crime comedy: its actual police procedural elements mostly consist of remebering that CCTV exists, the main forward momentum of the investigation coming from Judy just knocking on people’s doors until they tell her ‘who did it’.

In the long run, none of that really maters. Zootopia is a triumph, and Disney’s finest movie in years.

What about Frozen, I hear you say? Oh, Let It Go.


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