Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore || Produced by: Clark Spencer
Screenplay by: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston || Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J. K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira
Music by: Michael Giacchino || Cinematography: Thomas Baker || Edited by: Fabienne Rawley, Jeremy Milton || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 108 minutes
I don’t review animated films often on this site because, quite frankly, I don’t care for them that much. Sure, Pixar Studios’ feature films are case studies on how to write solid screenplays, and their animation is always top-notch, but much of the actual filmmaking and cinematography behind their stories (and especially their rival studios’ movies) I find lacking. On the flip side, their greatest hits like The Incredibles (2004), Finding Nemo (2003), and Inside Out (2014) are so universally beloved there’s not much point in dissecting them with a review. Perhaps I’ll write an essay on my personal favorite, Toy Story (1995), one day, but I’m in no hurry. As a whole, I find that style of filmmaking over-saturated in today’s market to a degree even the modern superhero-craze hasn’t achieved. Animated feature films have become so overrated and ubiquitous for little reason other than their inherent kid-friendly, mass-audience appeal, despite their vast and often unused potential for visual humor.
So, color me surprised when I found myself enjoying the hell out of Walt Disney Animation’s latest rebuttal to the dominance of its sister studio, Zootopia. While I enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph (2012), I found 2013’s Frozen-mania irritating and overblown, so I did not expect to have as good a time with Zootopia as I did. Besides my qualms with animation in general, much coverage of the film has centered on its “positive moral themes” and “challenges toward social/racial/ethnic/sexual/[insert demographic here] stereotypes.”
Any time a popular movie becomes overly politicized, I start to worry, especially if it’s a mainstream property that appears to have progressive, politically correct appeal. Things like Avatar (2009), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Carol (2015), or Selma (2014) give me a headache with their overblown critical praise and on-the-nose social commentary. I feared another heavy-handed preaching was order. Thankfully, I was mistaken.
While I doubt most critics and social commentators would recognize impressive cinematography or mature characterizations if they bit them on the ass, this time the crowds stumbled upon a smarter-than-average script, which also happened to have a great sense of humor. Zootopia, an overt contemplation on societal prejudice, political scheming, and the American cultural melding pot, is the farthest thing from subtle; its jokes, characterizations, and various subplots all have obvious political messages, but like my favorite case study, District 9 (2009), the movie rarely hits you over the head with its messages’ simplicity. The primary reasons why this goofy social commentary entertains rather than elicits groans from yours truly is because of its strong characters, interesting story, strong visual gags, and that aforementioned sense of humor.
Zootopia’s politically correct pandering is balanced by several snarky characters who keep the movie’s story grounded in reality, providing a pragmatic contrast to the film’s otherwise idealistic themes. Our main character, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), is your new age, strong-willed feminist archetype who takes on the world with her can-do attitude and resilient fortitude. She is quickly matched, however, by the cynical and suave Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who counter’s Hopp’s idealism and goodwill with distinctly masculine snark and nihilistic demeanor. Regardless whatever real-life parallels one draws from this pairing, the character dynamic of Hopps and Wilde further illustrates the effectiveness of writing opposite personalities as co-leads. Like Princess Leia and Han Solo before them (or Colossus and Deadpool from this year’s, well, Deadpool ), opposite characters not only provide a broader appeal to a larger audience, they also make for more entertaining actor-chemistry and provide nearly endless material for character gags. Every time Hopps becomes too serious, she’s matched by Wilde’s smartass remarks, and every time Wilde becomes too cynical and callous, Hopps reacts with optimism and spunk. These two are the heart and soul of Zootopia.
Moreover, each co-lead is written deeper than their surface-level archetypes. Judy becomes sobered upon making it to the titular setting and discovering that being a big city cop isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. You sympathize (dare I say, empathize) with her disappointed idealism, her homesickness, and how the system repeatedly beats her down. On the flip-side, Nick’s smooth-talking, bad-boy shell softens once he and Judy go through some rough times together, when he finally opens up to her. Their relationship feels real and meaningful.
To that end, the movie’s unrelenting commitment to its obvious social metaphors fits with its blunt visual humor and wacky anthropomorphic mammalian fantasy. Numerous clever gags include things like Nick picking at a sheep’s hair, hamsters running into each other in their miniature subway, Judy fistbumping a rhinoceros coworker, a hilarious Godfather (1972)-reference, a sloth-staffed DMV joke, and the most pathetically adorable microwavable carrot-dinner imaginable. Zootopia takes full advantage of its animation style to create visual humor, and uses its political message to enhance, rather than distract from, its comedy.
Zootopia’s blunt social themes melding with effective gags recalls Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s (2016) unwavering dedication to dark, brooding melodrama, or even Devdas‘ (2002)’s affection for never-ending romantic gossip and over-the-top musical spectacle. As long as a film’s cinematography, characters, and story hold strong, a movie can be as blunt with its social commentary and as over-the-top with its tone as it wants. As long as you have the screenwriting and cinematographic basics down, people don’t have much room to complain about your film.
Altogether, Zootopia is a deceptively smart social satire wrapped within a LA-noir style crime drama, further candy-coated within an animated, talking-animal setting. How much you appreciate each layer depends on your disposition as a film-lover and your sense of humor. If nothing else, it’s a powerhouse alternative to the bland Frozen’s and Minion’s (2015) of the world.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Zootopia will rejuvenate the idealists and entertain the cynics, and if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. The principle relationship between Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman is one of the better animated pairings in recent history; their opposite senses of humor meld with the bizarre world and intriguing plot around them.
? Shakira’s “Try Everything” is also a much better song than “Let it Gooooooooooooooooooo… “