dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, JK Simmons
~ SPOILER FREE ~
I am not one for “message” movies. Or “message” anything, come to think of it. Nothing irritates me more than a piece of media which exists only to drive a moral into your head, especially when it is aimed at children. To me, story and character should come first.
How great then, to see that Zootropolis (retitled from Zootopia in the US), though delivering a very timely message about prejudice, does not let the moral drown out a brilliantly engaging buddy-cop story and two of the most endearing lead characters in recent memory. Disney has been on a winning streak lately. Every film they’ve made since 2009’s Princess and the Frog has been at least good, and both Frozen and Big Hero 6 are genuinely amongst my favourite animated movies. Does Zootropolis live up to those heights? To be honest, yeah, it probably does.
Judy Hopps is the first bunny cop in Zootropolis, and wants nothing more to be taken seriously by her fellow officers. She gets her chance when she is put on a missing mammal case, and blackmails con-fox Nick Wilde into helping her. The two of them uncover a plot that endangers every citizen of Zootropolis. If Big Hero 6 had the wonderful characters and Frozen the emotional gut-punch, then Zootropolis rounds out the trio with its fantastic story. This is, essentially a mystery movie, building from simple kidnapping mystery to a full on conspiracy thriller. My first (of very few) real issue with the film therefore, comes from just how long it takes us to reach that point. Zootropolis opens with a young Judy dealing with bullies in her hometown and parents who want her to follow a more traditional rabbit career path (as a carrot farmer). Flash forward to an adult Judy… facing exactly the same problems. Parents fear for her safety, colleagues don’t take her seriously. Its important set-up thematically but they drive the point home just one too many times before even putting her on the kidnapping case.
This extended prologue is saved in part, however, by a seemingly innocuous chase scene that sets up several of many fantastic plant-and-pay-offs. The level of foreshadowing is one of Zootropolis’ greatest strengths, with dozens of big and little moments returning later on as either throwaway jokes or huge plot points. I’ve seen the movie described as something of a ‘Hot Fuzz for kids’ in this regard and that isn’t an inaccurate comparison. This movie isn’t afraid to go dark at times. There are one or two jump-scares, and at least one scene that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s something I’ve noticed in Disney productions (notably in Gravity Falls, but elsewhere too), which I’m extremely grateful for, they aren’t afraid to address the concept of death. They use the words “die” and “kill”. They show just how dangerous a situation our heroes are in and how threatening the villains are. It’s something a lot of productions aimed at a young audience are squeamish about, but I think we need it in our media, and not just to build tension for stronger stories. When you’re dealing with important issues, like Zootropolis does, death does play into that and we shouldn’t lie or downplay it to children.
Its not all doom and gloom, though. This film is also quite funny, in some very unusual ways. Whilst I didn’t laugh out loud all that often, I had a near constant grin, thanks to some great visual gags, animal based puns and very odd references (a Godfather parody out of nowhere? Who’d have thought?)
But perhaps the most shining thing about this movie is the animation and production design. Zootropolis – both the movie and the city itself – is absolutely gorgeous. The environmental design and worldbuilding – from a train station to suit animals of every size to a rodent-scale city-within-a-city – is, frankly, genius and the animation on the characters is superb. The fur truly looks soft and huggable (these characters are just built to sell the cuddliest toys) and so much attention is put into every little movement, from subtle facial expressions that show great emotional range to nose twitches, ear and tail movements that keep the characters feeling truly animal. I was in awe of the animation quality of this movie from start to finish, and it was the first thing I thought about when sitting down to write this review.
I will say that the beginning of the third act does veer into fairly predictable territory, in terms of friendships broken and our heroes’ lowest moments, but the spark that causes it is still pretty hard hitting (definitely one of the film’s most powerful scenes). I can’t go much further into either the plot or the characters without bringing out spoilers, suffice to say that I never knew a CGI fox could break my heart (but if anyone was going to make it happen, it would be Disney). One thing I do have to bring up though is that –
(and proceed with caution here, I will not name names but if you want to go completely blind, skip this paragraph!)
– while the plot twists, the reveal of what is ultimately going on and who and what is causing the disappearances make absolute, 100% sense for this movie and its story… I was still kind of disappointed by the ultimate reveal of the villain behind it all. My reasons for this are pretty personal, though. As I said, for this movie, they work. Their motivations make sense, the plot is sinister but very clever, and tonally and thematically both the plan and the downfall are satisfying. However, for all the great foreshadowing in this movie, the villain’s identity is the one thing that I feel simply isn’t foreshadowed enough. You could have picked pretty much any side character and they’d have had the same amount of build-up if it were revealed that they were the mastermind. Maybe a second viewing would be enlightening, but considering every other instance of plant-and-pay-off worked so well, here it felt lacking. I’m also tired of this trope in Disney movies. Yes, having the villain’s identity be ultimately revealed in a plot twist worked well in Frozen, but that was because we hadn’t seen it before. It’s better here in Zootropolis than it was in Big Hero 6 (where the villain was the weakest part of the movie and their downfall just disappointing… as was Frozen’s baddy’s ultimate defeat, come to think of it) but I miss my classic Disney villains. We haven’t had a great Disney badguy, with a great villain song and a horrifying but deserved fate, since Dr Facilier in Princess and the Frog, almost a decade ago!
(and you are safe from even the most minor of spoilers now)
I also wasn’t fond of the heavily advertised but ultimately pointless character voiced by Shakira. She exists merely for a few funny gags about iPhone aps and a movie-closing concert scene, but also gets an extended speech scene about two thirds in, which is just about the worst the movie gets at hitting you over the head with its message, made all the more cringeworthy thanks to weak delivery by a non-voice-actor. I fear that Disney is also risking becoming a little too reliant on in-jokes. A zinger delivered by Idris Elba’s character works brilliantly, but a bit player voiced by (the always welcome) Disney mainstay Alan Tudyk – who is named basically just to make an inverted version of the same joke from an earlier movie, and who sells animal-themed knock-off Disney DVDs – is pushing it. These are minor gripes though, in the grand scheme of things. Oh, and this is yet another Disney movie that proves, above anything else, that they needs to hire a new marketing department, because those trailers do not reflect the depth of the final product. Not one bit.
I’m hoping that Disney goes once more to their roots for their next princess venture, but Zootropolis is a delightful, creative movie with two great leads, which should be seen if only for the sheer quality of the animation. I highly recommend it.