It’s rare to see a modern animated film have strong allegories, but also a fantastical world to wrap them within. Zootopia deals with topics such as racism, sexism, prejudice and stereotypes, but only as bluntly as they should appear in a world of anthropomorphic animals.
It’s probably not something you’d expect from the Walt Disney Studios that tends to favor the simpler and award-winning stories of Frozen and Big Hero 6. But in the current crop of animated films that dabble in simplistic slapstick and templated shlock, Zootopia stands out just enough to turn some heads on how to make a movie about CGI animals both creative and thoughtful.
Zootopia constructs a society where all animals have learned to live in harmony. Hamsters ride the train with rhinos, a sheep acts as a secretary to a tiger and giraffes can get a decent cup of coffee on their morning commute. Despite the boasting of defeating nature over nurture with prey living among predators, a few hurdles exist to be climbed.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit that wants to be a cop, but there has never been a bunny police officer before – most bunnies appear to be farmers. When relayed this information by her parents, Judy cheerfully states that she’ll just have to be the first, as if it’s no big challenge. But it turns out to be one of the most difficult tasks of her life with a societal mindset that bunnies are too cute and small to handle big cases. She certainly stands out in a room of officers that range from water buffalo to elephants.
Reduced to the level of a meter maid, Judy seeks to prove herself by solving one of the many missing mammal cases throughout Zootopia. Her only lead is the cunning fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a shameless hustler that specializes in taking advantage of kindness and making a quick couple hundred dollars.
Judy uses all her wits and smarts to force Nick into helping her crack the case and proves she’s not just some dumb little bunny. At the same time, Nick also desires to excel past his predator ancestors to be more than just an astute huckster. And the conspiracy they uncover is thankfully smart enough to not be obvious and have a few unique twists.
The premise sounds simple enough for a buddy picture fused with a conspiracy plot. But the exceptional direction of Rich Moore and Byron Howard elevates every scene to its full potential.
There is an immense construction to the world of Zootopia that divides up regions into different climates from rainforests to a tundra. The inner urbanized part of Zootopia has various areas built for creatures big and small; hippos have a dry-off station after emerging from water and small moles go shopping in their own pint-sized district. The attention to detail to every aspect of this society is a grand visual treat.
While kids will marvel at the amazing animation and character designs, adults will have plenty to admire in the humor. There are satirical digs at the studio with the way a street vendor sells bootleg versions of familiar Disney movies and one very clever slam on Frozen. The thematic elements contain loving satire to The Godfather and Chinatown, but clever enough to be appropriate for the story rather than just be direct references.
The comedy is also just as smart with the right amount of timing. One of the most uproarious scenes involves Judy and Nick gathering information from a DMV run by sloths. The full version of this scene was used in one of the trailers. Having already seen it, I still laughed hard at this scene for it tenacity to draw out the lazy nature of sloths. The absurdity is golden.