With a trio of high quality films (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6) in the last few years, Disney’s animation studio has been on a roll. Zootopia takes their game to the next level – equal to Pixar’s best level.
Set in a world where humanity never existed – and mammals evolved past their predator/prey relationship – Zootopia takes place in a world of anthropomorphized animals. The titular city, from afar, brings to mind a multi-colored city of OZ – or maybe Wayne Boring’s Kryptonopolis from the fifties’ Superman comics – it is an exquisite sight.
Judy Hopps (Ginnfer Goodwin, Once Upon a Time) has always wanted to be a police officer – even though no bunny has ever been able to do that. As a child, she stood up to a bullying fox and despite her parents’ fears, grew up to be accepted into Zootopia’s police academy – as part of a diversity program enacted by the city’s Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash).
Though she passes her final exam and receives her badge, she finds herself assigned to parking detail by Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, Luther). Determined to not let it get her down, she writes 200 tickets on her first day – by noon!
Then, as fate would have it, she’s in the right place at the right time to get assigned to a missing animals case – one of fourteen that have occurred over several weeks and the one she gets is an otter who vanished two weeks previous. Bogo gives her forty-eight hours to solve the case or turn in her badge.
Playing dumb bunny to a sly fox named Nick (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development), she ‘persuades’ him to help her solve the case – leading to some hair-raising experiences, including an audience with Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche, Futurama, Rick and Morty), a vole version of Don Corleone.
Another great moment is Zootopia’s take on the DMV – which is particularly appropriate and plays into a lovely bit of irony at the end of the movie.
What appeared, at first glance, to be a simple missing persons case takes on new urgency when Judy and Nick question a jaguar witness named Mr. Manchas (Frozen, The Batman) – who suddenly goes savage on them just after telling them that Otterton had done the same.
Clearly there’s an evil mastermind at work and Judy makes the mistake of suggesting – in front of TV cameras – that the cause might be biological: a reversion to ancient predatory behavior.
Written by Jared Bush (Big Hero 6) and Phil Johnson (Wreck-It Ralph) and directed by Byron Howard (Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Bush, Zootopia plays with racial profiling and other forms of bigotry as well combining funny animal, noir and mystery/thriller tropes to create something fresh and exciting.
The animation is superb and the 3D is excellent – especially considering that much of the action takes place in the murk of nighttime.
The odd couple teaming of a con artist fox and a straight arrow cop isn’t groundbreaking – unless the con and the cop are natural enemies like a fox and a bunny. Then it takes on a whole ‘nother layer – especially when you have that as the context for witty banter and angry exchanges.
There aren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments here as in, say, Wreck-It Ralph, but when they come they are terrific. There are plenty of smile and chuckle moments, too – but this isn’t actually a full out comedy: it’s a well thought out mystery with some science-fictional (for that world) elements folded into the mix.
Zootopia is a bit scary at times, too. It might be a bit much for kids under school age – but for everyone else it should be delightfully twisted fun.
In short, Zootopia is the best Disney animation studio film of the last decade.
Final Grade: A+