In recent years, Disney has successfully modernized their legacy with new, forward-thinking takes on their Disney Princess trope. Tangled and Frozen especially have brought the studio into the 21st Century like never before, alongside next-level animated hits that come princess-free, such as Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. With Disney continuing to ride high on such an enormous renaissance in the animated film genre that they helped to pioneer back in the 1930’s, it’s now time for Disney to revitalize another age-old trope that is often associated with the studio; Talking animals.
Enter Zootopia, the 21st Century take on the paradigm that previously brought us Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Great Mouse Detective, Robin Hood, and more from the vaults of the House of Mouse. Slyly held up to the modern progression of our refined and increasingly complex Western society, Zootopia is also another masterpiece for the studio’s seemingly endless catalogue of smash animated hits throughout the 2010’s, providing a colourful look at how old stereotypes die hard, as the social groups of modern society continue to fracture in the quest for universal acceptance.
With subject matter like this at play, it sounds like Zootopia would be a movie that’s far too complex and impenetrable for children, despite its colourful and sunny animated exterior. In reality though, there’s still plenty of fun in the movie for kids, between said beautiful animation exterior, and a lovable cast of highly creative and fun characters that are impossible not to adore. It’s adults that will indeed probably appreciate Zootopia the most though, for the brilliant and surprisingly accessible way that it addresses cultural stereotypes, and even heavy themes like racism, yet still does so through such a cuddly lens. In the end, this is another brilliant example from Disney as to how to make a movie that’s charming enough for children, yet also intelligent enough to engage adults on the level of the best that cinema has to offer!
Zootopia stars Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, a courageous and altruistic rabbit that is determined to become a police officer, despite there never being a rabbit police officer in the history of Zootopia’s world, which happens to be inhabited entirely by anthropomorphic animals that carry similar jobs and dispositions as modern people. Also similar to modern people is the belief in some circles that certain animals should not do certain things. For example, rabbits are farmers, and should stick to farming. Likewise, foxes are sly, and cannot be trusted. There are lots of creative examples of how the animals struggle with stereotypes in the same way that humans sometimes struggle with racism and sexism, especially in eras past. Even today however, those issues still persist in some places, and Zootopia addresses it in both a tasteful and inspiring fashion, via Judy’s can-do attitude and desire to break new ground for her kind.
Providing a foil for Judy’s character is Nick Wilde, a fox con artist voiced by Jason Bateman, who seems to reflect every stereotype about foxes that the movie’s world has come up with. Nick doesn’t apologize for what he is, and this causes initial friction between the convention-shattering Judy, and the laid-back, resigned attitude of Nick. The movie does a great job of building the eventful partnership between these two, with their ideologies clashing as they’re roped together into a high-stakes police assignment of Judy’s, especially since Judy happened to be bullied by a fox as a child. Neither Judy nor Nick necessarily come off as universally right or wrong, and they feel like they’re better people when they learn to trust and rely on each other’s instincts, giving the movie an inspiring message about tolerance, and not painting every person of a certain race, creed or sex with the same brush.
Of course, there are plenty of other characters on display in Zootopia, and all of them are realized and performed brilliantly! Even their chosen animals feel perfectly decided, such as Judy’s brash and uncompromising boss, Chief Bogo, a buffalo voiced by Idris Elba, or the timid assistant mayor, Bellwether, a sheep voiced by Jenny Slate. The cast of Zootopia could not have been better chosen, even amongst the small parts! Despite only really having one scene, one of the funniest moments in the movie occurs when Judy and Nick meet a dozy yak named Yax, voiced by Tommy Chong, and yes, it’s exactly the kind of humour that you would imagine from a yak voiced by Tommy Chong. Likewise, there’s a pop singer that is widely adored in the world of Zootopia, Gazelle, who is, well, a gazelle, voiced by Shakira, and this creates plenty of surprisingly great jokes, beyond just an excuse for a new pop single to tie in with the movie.
The world of Zootopia is absolutely bursting with character, and the unfortunate part of this is, I can’t discuss a lot of it, for want of avoiding spoilers. This simply means that the movie’s world is full to burst with character though, and there are tons of amazing surprises in terms of the movie’s personalities, and how they relate to our modern world in a surprisingly clever way. Sure, many children will probably just see talking animals that sometimes act silly, but the humour is still energetic and engaging enough to hold the attention of children, even as the personalities trigger a deeper sense of wit and introspection within the minds of adults.
Among its many strengths, Zootopia tells a story that constantly surprises the audience. It’s initially about Judy’s quest to become the first rabbit police officer, but as the marketing liberally revealed, she accomplishes this a short while into the movie. From there, Zootopia chronicles Judy having to overcome thankless duties and dismissal of her abilities due to what she is, eventually getting tangled, alongside a conning fox that she attempts to arrest, in a case with enormous implications on the utopian city of Zootopia, where animals of all kinds, predator and prey, all live together in harmony.
The shattering of illusion in one direction or the other is a central theme in Zootopia, and it’s wonderful that the storyline effortlessly keeps pace with this theme. Right as viewers think that they understand where the movie is going to go, Zootopia will often pull the rug out from under them, though in a way that should have seemed initially obvious to the viewer. The way that the movie plays with our own understanding of stereotypes is one of the key reasons why it feels so inspired and brilliant, yet not at the expense of it being enjoyable and funny.
Again, it’s difficult to go into the story of Zootopia too much when I obviously want to avoid spoilers, but rest assured that this is another of Disney’s finest modern stories on the big screen to date! Zootopia is incredibly clever throughout its runtime, and while there are small lulls here and there in the story, it’s never enough to hurt the entertainment value, nor does it come at the expense of great sequences that follow soon after.
Zootopia is helmed by a powerhouse duo of Disney directors, being overseen by Tangled’s Byron Howard and Wreck-It Ralph’s Rich Moore, with some co-direction done by newcomer, Jared Bush, who has a handful of experience writing for television. Needless to say, this dream team of directors is a huge part of the reason why Zootopia feels like such a masterful creation.
Even beyond the gorgeous surface sheen and inspired themes that are blatantly noticeable throughout Zootopia, Howard and Moore also give the movie a great sense of subtle wit across its many scenes. Whether it’s timelessly amusing pop culture references, amusing background gags, or other tiny nuggets like that, Zootopia has just as much effort put into its minute details as it does its larger, over-arching vision. This is why the world feels so real, and why it so easily comes to life as a living, breathing and immersive landscape for the moviegoer to enjoy.
Again, none of this comes at the expense of the humour and energy either. Even as adults notice and chuckle at the little touches that really help Zootopia come together, there’s still plenty of fast-paced, exciting and upbeat scenes to keep the movie feeling vigorous and focused, on top of making sure that it doesn’t lose the attention of younger viewers. As far as helming an animated movie goes, Zootopia is a masterwork, and should serve as how to direct an animated movie with the utmost of quality.
Michael Giacchino composes the score of Zootopia, which is just as finely crafted as the rest of the movie. The score feels effectively heartwarming and energetic, and adds a nice lovable charm to the movie. There are a few more energetic compositions too however, not least of which is Shakira’s new tie-in single, “Try Everything”, which is reasonably fun and catchy, even if it does somewhat feel like it’s going to be dated before long, as these animated pop singles often are. Still, the score of Zootopia is a cut above other animated movies, and helps to contribute to the movie’s sense of heart and whimsy rather nicely.
The rest of the audio work hits with the proper impact for the most part, though even in IMAX theatres and other such premium formats, it’s not too forceful, so it’s unlikely that even the more tense scenes will frighten young children. There’s enough of a sense of a excitement to give the handful of action scenes in the movie the proper sense of peril, though this is still a Disney movie, so even the danger is often pretty lightweight in contrast to most other movies. Nonetheless, Zootopia’s audio suite engages on all of the levels that it should, even if the fluffy audio doesn’t really do much to take advantage of premium formats like IMAX.
Disney seems to reset the bar for cinematic animation with all of their new in-house movie releases lately, and that continues to be true with Zootopia. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most gorgeous and sublimely animated movies in the history of film! Zootopia sports incredible lighting and shading work, on top of the impressively detailed rendering behind both animals and environments. It feels almost eerily lifelike, and yet not so lifelike that it loses its sense of magic. CG on film has, quite frankly, never looked better than it does here!
As you can imagine, Zootopia’s visuals get even better when you experience them in 3D as well! The movie’s 3D presentation is quite good, giving an even greater sense of scale and immersion to the world of Zootopia, while also enhancing certain environmental flourishes that help the movie become more engaging. It’s probably the best 3D presentation of 2016 so far, even giving the strong 3D work of Kung Fu Panda 3 a run for its money!
Less impressive is the IMAX 3D cut, which still has superb 3D work, but doesn’t really benefit from the IMAX screen. The IMAX 3D cut doesn’t seem optimized for IMAX at all, not the screen nor the speakers, and feels like kind of a last-minute addition that doesn’t need to exist. Honestly, you’re better off saving the couple of dollars, and just sticking with a standard digital 3D showing, which is the ideal way to see Zootopia, even if it’s still a visual marvel for those who would rather just watch the movie flat in 2D.
Disney seems to have fully regained their throne as the king of animated movies, even surpassing their subsidiary Pixar outfit in that regard since the 2010’s started. Zootopia carries on that incredible new standard, standing as another instant modern classic for the Disney catalogue. The movie is smart, heartfelt, funny, and doesn’t really have any major flaws. As far as animated movies go, Zootopia couldn’t have possibly been better realized!
Even coming out at the very start of March, Zootopia is already an easy contender for one of the month’s best movies, even with colossal releases like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice around the corner. It’s a must-see movie for both kids and adults alike, being as amusing as it is wise. The outstanding presentation is already impressive enough, but Zootopia is definitely not style over substance, and contains lots of subtle commentary and detail that actively rewards repeat viewings.
It’s amazing how much Disney has created the world of Zootopia so effectively as a place that feels like home, even with its undeniably surreal style. The movie is very satisfying to get lost in, regardless of your time in the real world to date. Like our world, the world of Zootopia is imperfect, sometimes ignorant, and often inexplicable, but as the unyielding optimism of Judy Hopps proves, there can be no justice without the desire to make this messed up planet just a little bit brighter, and our world is definitely brighter, thanks to the existence of this movie!
- Endearing, lovable personalities for both kids and adults
- Smart, amusing satire of stereotyping
- Stunning animation, especially in 3D
- Some small story lulls
- IMAX 3D cut is superfluous