Zootopia is an idealistic animated movie by Walt Disney Animation Studios that’s neither as frantic as Pixar’s Inside Out nor as deliberate as Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. The strong character-based story unfolds at a leisurely clip and it’s perfect for the family. I found that, with low to moderate expectations, and I admit that I tend to like these mid-range animated pictures such as the delightful Home on the Range, I was pleasantly surprised.
For starters, it adopts an alternate universe approach so Zootopia avoids mixing the mammals with man. Zootopia is a place, like New York City or Los Angeles, or, taken on a larger scale, America. It’s where the world’s furry creatures gather in one big melting pot metropolis. A little female country rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grew up on a farm with hundreds of siblings, with a flair for drama decides early in life that the world is hers to own, as the saying goes. She wants to be a policewoman.
Everyone—her parents, a bully, others—tries to dissuade her, some with good reason. But rabbit girl won’t quit and she grows up to best a butch female police academy drill sergeant’s expectations to make the grade, though it’s only part of what comes off like a gender quota program (and the movie endorses favoritism such as mandated affirmative action programs though not without reservations). Once on Zootopia’s police force, led by a tough police chief (Idris Elba), the petite young adult gets assigned as a meter maid.
Watching everyone underestimate Officer Hopps is one of Zootopia‘s treats, however. This is a girl who, thanks to skilled, colorful animation which is not rushed, obnoxious and splintered into a thousand sound effects, quick cuts and jokes, expresses wonder at the world as she rides into the big city and its exotic and fascinating environs on a train in a bright-eyed (and, yes, bushy-tailed) series of scenes with a catchy pop song (“Try Everything”) by Shakira. Assigned to hand out parking tickets, which she learns isn’t exactly a beloved act of law enforcement, Judy decides she’ll impress the boss with what she figures is outstanding effort and ability. The character is refreshingly more realistic and spirited in her idealism than the usual girl-power archetype.
Of course, she encounters true crime and gets to try and prove herself as a police officer and Zootopia is somewhat predictable and, at its worst, trite. But it is also sprinkled, not overloaded, with clever sight gags (city car service by Zuber, department store Mousy’s, TV news by ZNN), solid storytelling and what to my admittedly amateur eye is consistent and proportionate character and background animation. It’s a world that’s enjoyable to look at and visit for an hour and a half or so. Zootopia is inviting. Because its appeal is at the center of the conflict, rejecting or vindicating the bunny cop’s idealism about this great melting pot as the place to be whatever one wants to be, its look, feel and functionality is part of the plot, not merely a design feature to dazzle an audience. The city is a whole, exciting world.
Its inhabitants include a fox named Nick (Justin Bateman) with whom Judy tangles, fellow cops and city officials, an otter (Octavia Spencer, Black or White) whose husband is missing and various street criminals. Subversively seeded into the plot is Zootopia‘s timely and cautionary theme about being alert to the true dangers of the big city—don’t jump to conclusions; be rational in judging who may be the real predators—with well-integrated sides of redemption, a bit about diversity and what it means to be “brave, loyal, helpful and trustworthy.” There’s a lot to like and take in from my perspective, but not too much, including a film noirish climax at a cliffside castle, a dig at the media’s tendency to distort facts and my favorite bite against a variant of collectivism which is best left unspoiled which shockingly and happily made it past studio self-censors. I wish I could say more but I can’t.
I can say that the villainous line that “fear always works” is neatly and convincingly countered and everything comes around with an end credit sequence which reprises the pop song with panache. I could have done without another nod to The Godfather or the fist bump (note to studios: it’s not 2008 anymore) but none of this feels overdone or crammed down the politically correct tube—on the contrary—which makes Zootopia a cute and furry family diversion. Zootopia‘s electro-song woos the audience to “Try Everything”. If you want to escape today’s emergent American dystopia and feel good, try seeing this movie.