It has been fascinating watching the rise of Disney Animated Studios. Often relegated to the sidelines in a post-The Lion King world by the emergent Pixar, the studio went through a bit of a fallow period until resurging in 2010 with Tangled just as Pixar started to lose a bit of its luster until rebounding with Inside Out (which is the only movie they released last year, and you cannot convince me otherwise). Zootopia is the fifth feature the studio has made since its most recent return to prominence, and the first of that run to be forged on a wholly original idea (Wreck-it Ralph may have been a new character, but it’s so founded upon video game culture that it feels like an adaptation of sorts). Hearkening back to the likes of Robin Hood, The Rescuers or The Aristocats, Zootopia imagines a world full of anthropomorphic talking animals with a bustling metropolis at its center. With directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and co-director Jared Bush behind the helm, could this fusion of a classic Disney approach merge with the modern sensibilities that has made Disney Animation Studios so successful?
The skeleton of Zootopia’s story is just about what you would expect from a colorful Disney movie. We follow a young rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), destined to be a rural carrot farmer like her mother and father and 247 siblings. But she longs for something far different, and hopes to one day moving to the nearby city of Zootopia and becoming a police officer. Despite this goal being a dream of hers since she was a tiny bunny, she is discouraged at every turn, simply because rabbits aren’t supposed to join the force. Such trifles aren’t going to defeat her, and when she comes of age, she manages to scrape and claw her way through the brutal training school and become a full fledged officer of the law. But things still aren’t hunky dory in the big city, as her chief, a gruff and imposing ox (Idris Elba), banishes her to meter maid duty as the rest of the department struggles with a rash of missing animal cases. She soon finds out that the only reason she’s even got a job is due to pressure from Zootopia’s mayor (J.K. Simmons as a proud and boisterous lion with maybe just a hint of Noah Cross) and his meek, yet officious assistant (Jenny Slate, a sheep), who see Officer Hopps as a wonderful example of diversity, prey doing the job of a predator. During her first day of rounds, Hopps comes across Nick (Jason Bateman), an unscrupulous fox running a variety of rackets, grifts and scams about town. When Nick is linked to the only lead on a missing otter, Judy enlists his reluctant help to track him down. As they dig deeper, they find the string leads to a much longer and more sinister knot that they had imagined.
You’d think that a film with a dizzying seven story credits (Disney has a tendency to write by committee, but seven feels like a lot even for them) and no source material to draw from might feel a bit disjointed, but screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston make Zootopia a surprisingly sprightly and coherent affair. The first act is relatively benign, kid’s movie sort of stuff, focused on overcoming the odds and breaking out of what society assumes you’ll want to do (it can’t be a coincidence that Wreck-it Ralph, Disney’s other recent tale of breaking out of societal expectations, was also directed by Rich Moore), but when Judy and Nick start stripping away the veneer and uncovering Zootopia’s seedy underbelly, it is clear that there is much more going on here than it seems to be letting on. The second act shifts pointedly into the realm of a hard-boiled detective procedural, the stuff of Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon, as shady characters from shady parts of town are interviewed in shady shacks, revealing conspiracies that spiral deeper and deeper into the city’s very fabric. Intriguingly, the film manages to shift its focus again in the third act, turning itself into a cogent, satisfying and fearlessly modern riff on gender inequality, institutional and generational racism and police brutality. Admittedly, the film takes a bit of time to get going, meandering through its opening “kiddie phase” (which is a reductive way to look at things), but once the genre begins to shift and the noir elements filter in, Zootopia becomes an immensely intelligent and engaging cinematic experience.
A story that must cater to so many masters while restraining itself from becoming overly self-aggrandizing or preachy has to lean pretty heavily on its voice cast, and they have put together a strong mix of knowns and lesser knowns to inhabit their bustling city. Goodwin and Bateman assail themselves well as the leads, with a nice father/daughter chemistry to their interactions that doesn’t wear out its welcome. The casting of Jenny Slate feels particularly inspired; voicing this tiny little sheep as a sort of grown up Marcel the Shell, so beaten down and stripped of her agency. Voice acting stalwarts like Bonnie Hunt, Alan Tudyk and Maurice LaMarche bring flair and depth to their smaller roles, making Zootopia feel alive and as vibrant as its colorful central district. Indeed, the only time Zootopia takes a misstep is the inclusion of a gazelle singer (named Gazelle, and voiced by Shakira) who only really exists for a few cheap jokes and a few songs to play over an early montage and the end credits. As a compromise for the younger members of the audience, it could be much worse, but it certainly sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the subtlety of the film’s storytelling.
It’s often said the that best children’s animated films work on multiple levels, offering something for the adults in the audience as well as the children who drag them to the theater. Often, this amounts to little more than a double entendre here and there, or a reference to a movie or TV show the kids wouldn’t understand. There’s a bit of that here and there in Zootopia, but the real crossover appeal comes from the story and how it is implemented, making this a case much more on the Inside Out side of the scale than the Shrek side. Indeed, much like how Inside Out taught a generation the importance of sadness and melancholy in their emotional development, Zootopia shows them the harm of prejudice, even unconscious prejudice, against the minorities of a society. It does so with elan and sophistication, avoiding becoming preachy or overbearing in its message. It’s about a lot more than that too, making for an animated adventure that is both inspired and inspiring.