Zootopia (2016)

Welcome to the urban jungle

Imagine a world where animals of all shapes and sizes lived in harmony (both predators and prey), in a place that catered for their individual needs and natural habitats. Well folks, welcome to Zootopia, an ultra-modern mammal wonderland, a metropolis where anthropomorphic critters — from gargantuan elephants and once-ravenous tigers, all the way down to the tiniest pygmy shrew — co-exist, in a city that’s built for those who dream big; its mantra ‘In Zootopia, anyone can be anything.’ Our tale follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) the first bunny to join Zootopia’s police force (ZPD), who leaves her rural carrot farming hometown of Bunnyburrow to fulfill aspirations of becoming a law enforcer — a lifelong goal for the young rabbit — determined to prove herself in a realm populated by hardened, more intimidating beasts (think hippos and rhinos). Doubting her potential due to her diminutive size, the department chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a tough-as-nails cape buffalo, assigns the rookie officer to parking duty, a role she’s not too hop-timistic about.

With the meter maid abandoning her post to arrest a slippery small-time crook, Duke Weaselton (a reference to the Duke of Weselton from 2013’s Frozen, whom Alan Tudyk also voices), Hopps is immediately reprimanded by Bogo and nearly fired, until Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer) arrives pleading for help, the otter desperate to locate her lost husband — one of fourteen animals who’ve recently disappeared across Zootopia. To Bogo’s dismay, Hopps voluntarily jumps on the task, agreeing to resign if she cannot solve the ‘missing persons’ case within 48 hours. As luck would have it, a random encounter with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fast-talking scam-artist fox, gives Hopps her first lead, though teaming up with the street-wise ‘big mouth’ (apprehensively) may stand to be her best chance of success, especially if she intends on cracking the baffling mystery before time runs out.

Hopps Pursuit
Hopps Pursuit

Right off the bat, I must admit I wasn’t initially sold on Zootopia based on early trailers or the promotional material released by the House of Mouse — to be quite honest, I found comparable films The Secret Life of Pets (2016) and Sing (2016) to be that tiny bit more appealing (even if ever-so slightly). Though thankfully, Zootopia not only exceeded all my (low) expectations, and then some, but the film may very well make it into the top tier of animated flicks of 2016. Working as a noir-ish whodunnit of sorts, part buddy-cop film (something I thought I’d never see from a Walt Disney produced ‘cartoon’) and part family comedy, Zootopia succeeds due to its firm moralistic virtues, broadminded scope and wondrous imagination. While certainly entertaining, the multifaceted storyline allows Zootopia to rise above and beyond general Disney fare, the feature standing out like a giraffe in a pack of zebras — it’s a thoughtful and timely piece of cinema. Although marketed as a kids film, Zootopia is without a doubt one of the smartest, most sophisticated kids films I’ve seen in a long while.

With eight people credited for the movie’s storyline (the writer’s room must have been pretty crammed on this one) it’s no wonder Zootopia — a colorful, stylish crime-drama that pulls on both the head and heartstrings — is so refined; its screenplay — penned by co-director Jared Bush along with Phil Johnston, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) — is sharp-witted, crisp and delightfully intelligent. Never feeling overly preachy, Bush and Johnston ingeniously slip in ‘be-true-to-yourself’ and ‘never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover’ messages and, on top of all this, still find time to comment on the dangers of setting limitations, which can prove to be an injustice to others and also on oneself. Pouncing on themes of prejudice, racism, sexism and social class, its subtext (while kid-friendly) is overt and daring with filmmakers dropping in inventive, even playful ways of making these strong-willed liberal statements, connotations that’ll surely dwell in the minds of viewers (creatures great and small) for generations to come.

'Slow day, huh?'
‘Slow day, huh?’

With astute direction and meticulous attention to detail, filmmakers Byron Howard, Tangled (2010), Rich Moore, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and co-writer Jared Bush — guided by producer John Lasseter, Toy Story (1995), of Pixar fame — have crafted a flick with real bite. Beyond its well-rounded narrative, Zootopia itself is a visual splendor, the cityscape a vast, jaw-dropping animal utopia — never before has the term ‘it’s a jungle out there’ been more fitting. Presented through the childlike eyes of Judy Hopps, audiences are introduced to this mammalian paradise with feverish pep, the glorified zoo having a genuine sense of allure, made up of soaring structures and awe-inspiring architecture that’s animalistic in nature yet sleek and forward-looking in design — it’s truly a sight to behold.

Enabling animals to celebrate their unique culture, the city has skilfully been divided into distinct climate regions which, in turn, paves way for some amusing gags while simultaneously giving the impression that characters are doing a bit of globetrotting, even though they’re simply just hopping down town — there’s the luscious urban rainforest district, the frosty Tundratown and the ritzy desert expanse Sahara Square (to name a few). One such scene sees our fuzzy hero stumble into a neighborhood of rodents (aptly named Little Rodentia) and ends up looking monster-sized as a result, stomping about while in pursuit of a fleeing foe (a wink to Godzilla perhaps).

Speaking of which, despite Zootopia’s politically fueled tone, filmmakers have cheekily thrown in a number frisky pop culture references and fun Easter eggs, softening the narrative heft in the process. Having constructed a world that more-or-less mirrors our own, we see Zootopia’s version of Big Hero 6 (2014) (or should I say Pig Hero 6) — along with other Disney titles Wrangled and Wreck-it Rhino, which have all been re-worked for the animal kingdom — there’s brand identifiable tech, hand-made for the hairball kind and nods to classic films such as The Godfather (1972) and Patrick Swayze’s Road House (1989) — and for those Breaking Baaaahd fans, be sure to keep an eye out for a sly little nod to the hit AMC network television series.

'Oh, you can't pull the wool over my eyes.'
‘Oh, you can’t pull the wool over my eyes.’

Infusing emotional depth to proceedings is the chemistry between the unlikely pairing of Judy Hoops and Nick Wilde — the bunny’s boundless optimism countered by the fox’s cynicism and snarky delivery — their banter, wily crosstalk and contrasting personalities working to the plot’s favor. With Nick’s outward physique perfectly encapsulating that of a sly fox — Wilde baring a passing resemblance to Robin Hood from the 1973 animated Disney flick — and Judy looking like your stereotypical big-eyed bunny wabbit — but don’t call her ‘cute,’ that’s like using the ‘n-word’ — the characters have all been designed (rather gorgeously, too) in such a manner that their exteriors accentuate, and vividly align with that of each creature’s innate instinct. But viewers beware, as Zootopia constantly subverts expectations by putting our preconceptions ‘under the microscope’ (so to speak), with many of the film’s players proving to be more than their orthodox ‘appearance’ or patterns of behavior suggest — a powerful metaphor indeed.

With that said, Leodore Lionheart (voiced by J. K. Simmons) is a proud and noble feline (as lions are intended to be) and Mayor of Zootopia (he’s the leader of the pack) whilst the fly ridden, dreadlock haired Yax (Tommy Chong providing the vocals) is a laid-back, free-thinking bovine and proud owner of the naturist club Mystic Springs Oasis (a nudist colony that brings about one truly risqué scene). And let’s not look past the irony of a three-toed sloth named ‘Flash’ (Raymond S. Persi) who works at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles) — now here’s a sequence that’ll either have you bursting into laughter or cringing with frustration (personally, I fall into the latter). And to represent the glitz-and-glam, we have Gazelle (voiced by Colombian singing sensation Shakira) a fabulous midriff-baring Thomson’s gazelle whom our citizens can find on their iPods alongside musos such as the Fur Fighters and Fleetwood Yak — Shakira providing the flick with its inspirational theme song ‘Try Everything,’ a track that encourages us to set goals and reach for the stars, even if that means ‘falling down’ from time to time (the lyrics ‘I wanna try even though I could fail’ ringing loud and true).

The Fantastic Mr. Fox ... and a rabbit. With a hat.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox … and a rabbit. With a hat.

A celebration of tolerance and diversity, Zootopia is a thrilling, humorous and thought-provoking ride (albeit, occasionally frightening), a gleefully robust entertainer with wide-reaching appeal, jovially playing up the crime/detective tropes while concurrently attempting to simplify our flawed, ever-changing world for youngsters — and even though the film’s analogies do provide some good ‘food for thought,’ one must remember that the movie is not an apples to apples comparison to the real world as humans don’t come with the same inbuilt mechanisms as that of our four legged friends. With a story as strong as an ox, artwork as picturesque as a lyrebird and a message as buff as a bull, Zootopia stands as a sure sign that Pixar’s sister company, Walt Disney Animation Studios, is beginning to grow up.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Zootopia is released through Disney Australia