Film Review: ‘Zootopia’

Zootopia Disney Trailer Sloths
Courtesy of Disney

Disney offers a decades-later correction to 'Song of the South,' in which rabbits and foxes have a chance to live together in relative harmony.

From the company that brought you the utopian simplicity of “It’s a Small World” comes a place where mammals of all shapes, sizes and dietary preferences not only live in harmony, but also are encouraged to be whatever they want — a revisionist animal kingdom in which lions and lambs lay down the mayoral law together, and a cuddly-wuddly bunny can grow up to become the city’s top cop. Welcome to “Zootopia,” where differences of race and species serve no obstacle to either acceptance or achievement. It is, in short, a city that only the Mouse House could imagine, and one that lends itself surprisingly well to a classic L.A.-style detective story, a la “The Big Lebowski” or “Inherent Vice,” yielding an adult-friendly whodunit with a chipper “you can do it!” message for the cubs.

Opening in several European countries weeks ahead of its March 4 domestic release, “Zootopia” is full of motormouthed characters and American culture in-jokes — no surprise, considering it was directed by Byron Howard, whose girl-power “Tangled” kicked off the recent Disney revival, and “The Simpsons” vet Rich Moore, who previously helmed “Wreck-It Ralph.” But that should pose little obstacle to its worldwide appeal, boosted by some of the most huggable Disney characters since “Lilo & Stitch.”

While her 225 bunny brothers and sisters are content to stay on the farm, aspirational rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) shows an early aptitude for conflict management, stepping in when a schoolyard bully hassles her classmates. Not so surprisingly, the offender happens to be a fox, though Judy doesn’t give in to such species typing, insisting that jerks come in all shapes and sizes. So, too, do heroes, and despite the limitations of her tiny scale, Judy enlists in the Zootopia police academy, struggling at first before outwitting her larger rivals.

Graduating at the top of her class, Judy packs her bags for a job in the big city — which is like a cross between one of those shiny 21st-century Dubai complexes featuring indoor skiing and surfing, and a new Disney theme-park adjunct, complete with climate-specific subdivisions like Tundratown and Sahara Square. “There’s far too much to take in here,” as the opening scene of “The Lion King” promises (a movie whose stunning African savannah was downright simplistic compared with the world “Zootopia” has to establish), and Howard and Moore struggle to make their introduction anywhere near as impressive, despite leaning heavily on an unremarkable “I want” song called “Try Everything,” performed by Gazelle (Shakira), the veld’s sveltest pop idol (well-meaning sample lyric: “I wanna try even though I could fail”).

Doing justice to an elaborate new environment poses a familiar problem, slightly improved from last year’s “Tomorrowland,” in the sense that Judy (who probably should have grown up in town, like everyone else in Zootopia) takes a long train ride into the city, ogling the various districts as she passes. It’s a sequence worth studying a dozen times down the road just to catch all the tiny details, from the hippo-drying stations to the plastic hamster tubes, although it’s an awkward way to acquaint ourselves with the city.

In theory, Zootopia’s residents have evolved past distinctions of predator and prey, which might explain the small matter of cartoon biology: Whether tiny mice or hulking rhinoceroses, all animals have front-facing eyes, upright postures and opposable thumbs — a throwback to the delightful character design featured in Disney’s “Robin Hood” (1973), which reimagined a human world populated entirely by animals, integrating characteristics of each species into the ways different creatures move.

In progressive-minded Zootopia, a moose can co-anchor the evening news with a snow leopard without it turning into an episode of “When Animals Attack!” That said, even the most basic social interactions remain tense, as the city’s caste system matches animals to the roles that suit them best (the DMV is all-too-accurately staffed by slow-moving sloths, for example), while still adhering closely to the hierarchy of the food chain (with a few amusing exceptions, including a cameo by “Pinky and the Brain” actor Maurice LaMarche as a Don Corleone-like arctic shrew).

As far as cops are concerned, it’s the big fellas — rhinos, tigers and Cape buffalo like Capt. Bogo (Idris Elba) — who are responsible for maintaining law and order. Judy may be the first to benefit from the new mammal-inclusion initiative devised by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), but Bogo isn’t ready to trust her with a real investigation, placing the rookie on parking-meter duty while he assigns everyone else key roles in a major missing-persons case. If Bogo’s behavior smacks of species-ism, that’s no accident: The “Zootopia” screenplay (on which the directors share credit with Phil Johnston and co-helmer Jared Bush) actually turns real-world racial sensitivity issues into something of a talking point — as when Judy notes that a bunny can call another bunny “cute,” but it’s not OK when another animal does it.

While raising the subject should help encourage kids to look past surface differences in one another, it’s a bit misleading, since the movie is less about race than gender, dredging up equality issues that might have been fresher in the days of “9 to 5” and “Working Girl”: Judy is treated differently because she’s a woman, bonding most easily with Bellwether (baby-voiced comedienne Jenny Slate), the woolly assistant mayor who serves as Lionheart’s glorified secretary, and Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the police force’s effeminate cheetah receptionist.

What, then, do we make of the tenuous alliance between Judy and trickster fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), which — despite the obvious design similiarities — features none of the bloodthirsty tension shown between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in Disney’s half-forgotten/suppressed “Song of the South”? “Zootopia’s” relatively P.C. sensibility serves as a partial corrective to that shameful 1946 toon, offering a classic screwball-comedy relationship in which the natural rivals match wits, while she carries the added protection of a spray-based fox repellent. Getting no support from her police comrades, Judy enlists Nick in an investigation that leads her down the metaphorical rabbit hole and into the seedier side of “Zootopia,” from the Mystic Spring Oasis (a clothing-optional resort where animals frolic au naturel) to an ominous research facility housing predators that have “gone savage.”

The deeper they go, the more “Zootopia” comes to resemble such vintage noirs as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” from its increasingly shadowy look to Michael Giacchino’s jazzy lounge-music score. Disney has been down this road before with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” although this time, there’s not a single human character to be found, while the adult-skewing jokes (mostly references to other movies) aren’t nearly so inappropriate for kids. Genre-wise, the film couldn’t be farther from the terrain of “Frozen” and other Disney princess movies, though it plays directly to the studio’s strengths, behind the scenes (we may not see every corner of Zootopia, but we know it’s been mapped out and conceptualized) and on screen, where the endearingly designed ensemble gives the animators plenty to work with.

Judy Hopps’ bright-eyed, foot-thumping energy and Nick Wilde’s cool, half-lidded reluctance offer a perfect study in contrasts, crossing what both actors gave in the recording booth with characteristics of the two species in question. In Goodwin’s case, the actress’s guileless optimism comes through loud and clear, telegraphed through her two long bunny ears, which fold back in fear and shame, but otherwise stand expectantly tall in the face of each new challenge. As her wily fox foil, Nick models a fast-changing map of Bateman’s smirks and eye rolls, his slouchy posture a deceptive cover for his slippery potential.

While it doesn’t have quite the same breakout potential as the Mouse House’s past few hits, “Zootopia” has shrewdly established both an environment that could be further explored from countless other angles (in a spinoff TV series, perhaps) and an odd-couple chemistry between Nick and Judy that carries on even after Gazelle returns for her obligatory grand finale.

Film Review: 'Zootopia'

Reviewed at Disney Studios, Burbank, Calif., Feb. 1, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 108 MIN.

Production

(Animated) A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release and presentation of a Walt Disney Animation Studios production. Produced by Clark Spencer. Executive producer, John Lasseter.

Crew

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore. Co-director, Jared Bush. Screenplay, Bush, Phil Johnston; story, Howard, Bush, Moore, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D), Brian Leach; editors, Fabienne Rawley, Jeremy Milton; music, Michael Giacchino; music supervisor, Tom MacDougall; production designer, David Goetz; art director, Matthias Lechner; heads of story, Trinidad, Reardon; head of animation, Renato Dos Anjos; animation supervisors, Nathan Engelhardt, Jennifer Hager, Robert Huth, Kira Lehtomaki, Chad Sellers; sound (Dolby Atmos), Addison Teague; supervising sound editor, Teague; re-recording mixer, David E. Fluhr, Gabriel Guy; visual effects supervisor, Scott Kersavage; stereoscopic supervisor, Katie A. Fico; associate producers, Nicole P. Hearon, Monica Lago-Kaytis; casting, Jamie Sparer Roberts.

With

Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Shakira, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake,Alan Tudyk, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Raymond Persi, Katie Lowes, Jesse Corti, John DiMaggio.

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  1. amp26 says:

    Your name: 10/10

    Zootopia: 5/10

  2. Wanderer says:

    Just to note: The reason the NAACP came down on Song of the South so hard was because the black characters weren’t treated in a sufficiently racist manner (they felt) for the post-Civil-War South. They felt there should have been at least one beating or whipping to drive the point home that the South was racist, and Disney wouldn’t go there.

  3. Jim Dandy says:

    Agree with the sensibilities of those who take a proper look at Song of the South, a well done movie and one which Mr. P.C. deBruge should see, or at least try to. But then also when does ever he consider that he’s off base? _ _ _ _ _ (fill in the blanks, use all caps, and start with N). Fortunately, he is also a bubble child.

  4. Reyna Rivera says:

    The movie was awesome and i hope there will be a nother one

  5. PeterHand says:

    Is this supposed to be a review. I would call that review. I learned nothing new…

  6. bloopblopp says:

    Actually I don’t think the film focuses on gender than race. Judy is mistreated both because she is female AND a bunny. However there are female cops (elephant) in the male dominated police academy that are treated well. Also what I really appreciated about this film is that not one species represented a particular race. Also, neither the predators or prey was directly related to one particular race. They made “black hair” jokes with the sheep, Judy was part of the “mammal inclusion initiative” and a lot of stereotypical black stuff was shown with Nick. HOWEVER, the great thing about showing that no race directly correlates with a species, means that everyone can relate to a character. And it shows even those who might be really open minded might have prejudices.

    • Gabe K says:

      Completely agree. I didn’t really notice anything in the movie relating to gender equality issues, mostly racial. It’s great that the main characters are female, as that just adds to the empowerment for string females, but we must address the elephant in the room… :D

  7. Javelin says:

    I think Disney is holding back on Zootopia and should be open and what not btw the movie is a great effort

    #@Dreamkeepers

  8. Ferrous says:

    Zootopia is a breath of fresh air and fun for all ages. One of the things I really enjoyed about it was the creative approach to world-building and how characters of vastly different body shapes & sizes would work.

    Bright colors, vibrant characters and creative worlds are par for the course in the world of anthro/furry entertainment, and Zootopia (much like Dreamkeepers, which is a little darker) does a good job of doing it.

  9. David Lillie says:

    Fantastic film- it has the appealing characters down pat, as well as the delicate nuance needed to convey a complex thematic structure. This is reminiscent of artisans at the subtle peak of their craft.

    …Just needs monsters and cannons, like Dreamkeepers

  10. Angie says:

    “Dredging up equality issues that might have been fresher in the days of “9 to 5” and “Working Girl” Right, because sexism is so rare these days? I wish. I really, really do. Unfortunately, just like racism, it’s often just subtler.

  11. Matt the Bruins fan says:

    The sloth scene in the trailer has guaranteed the only way I’m watching this movie is if someone holds a gun to my head.

    • npadln says:

      Yeah, me too. Stuff like that makes me want to scream. NOT entertaining; something to be ENDURED. Hopefully the scene doesn’t play as long as it no doubt will seem.

    • Laurence says:

      The Sloth scene was the best. It had the entire theater in stitches. Its released early in Singapore. I saw it today.

      I knew nothing about the movie. There was absolutely barely any marketing here at all. But wow… that was such a hoot.

      Most recent animated film ranking:
      1. Up
      2. Zootopia
      3. Kung Fu Panda
      4. Good Dinosaur

  12. Klay says:

    Nothing shameful about the animation in Song of the South. Obviously you’ve not seen that film. A fox tries to eat a rabbit–and is repeatedly out-witted. Best Disney animation of that era–even if the surrounding film is so-so.

    • Don says:

      I think he was referring the whole “Slave trade is okay.” message of the movie.

      • Jones says:

        @ Mike: About 99% of all people who have ever told me SotS was racist have never seen the movie. I have seen it multiple times, and calling that movie “racist” is an insult to anybody who has ever faced real racism. It is as problematic or unproblematic as countless movies from that era. Should we ban them all? Should we, e..g., ban the greatest movie ever made, Gone with the Wind (which, in stark contrast to SotS, actuallly “celebrates” slavery? SotS dares to show a black man, probably a *former* slave, who lives a happy life. That is its crime – implying that black people can be happy so shortly after the Civil War, that they can even sing happy sogs, and tell stories to white children. I do not want children to grow up thinking that that´s what meant by “racism”…

      • Mike says:

        It takes place during Reconstruction and features no slaves whatsoever. That’s not to say its depiction of race and race relations doesn’t deserve a critical eye, but I’m inclined to think you haven’t actually seen it.

  13. cadavra says:

    Peter, are you familiar with Bob and Ray? Those who are will know why I ask.

    • Reynard says:

      AND Walt Disney took pains to make Song of the South as inoffensive as possible. But given the book on which it was derived, as written by Joel Chandler Harris, it was kind of a no-win situation. It would be tough today to adapt that book in a way that would offend nobody. And anyone who hasn’t seen the whole film should shut the heck up. It features a wonderful performance by James Baskett. It’s a crime that children – and especially black children – are being deprived of it because of political correctness. Pretty soon the works of Bach won’t be allowed to be played in a public area because Bach wrote all of his music, in his own words, to honor God. We mustn’t offend the atheists after all.

      • Suz says:

        Some atheists were born of parents who had them to honor God but they manage to face their reflections without taking offense. Don’t be daft.

      • cadavra says:

        I’m unsure of what this has to do with Bob and Ray, but thanks for your input.

  14. Raymond Chandler kittycat loving dude says:

    Anthropomorphic animals in a noir detective story. I’m in!

  15. Chizz says:

    No surprise our benevolent crusader Debruge approves of brainwashing kids with this propaganda… but you gotta love the hypocrisy of praising this while calling Song of the South shameful.

    • Suz says:

      How dare children be brainwashed into believing you shouldn’t touch someone’s hair without permission or make assumptions about others.

      Also, maybe you were such a malleable impressionable youth that a movie could undo your upbringing but some of us already raise our children to be considerate of others in the first place, and we’re also confident enough in our skills to let them watch movies that run counter to our values without fear of them being subverted.

  16. Kelly of fakenewspapersdotcom says:

    Ahh, so refreshing! I would love to see more of the beauty of its complexity!

  17. Artiewhiotefox says:

    What is discribed as seedy side of up Zootopia is actually the natural side of what is outside. I have not seen Utopia yet but I hope that side of Zootopia shows what is outside.

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