If you go into the new Walt Disney Animation Studios feature Zootopia, (directed by the team of Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and co-Director Jared Bush ) hoping for the typical, sappy, children’s animated film, you’re going to find yourself sorely disappointed. That is not a bad thing by any means. While this film definitely has many of the hallmark qualities of classic Disney animation (talking animals, morality play undertones, etc.), it hews much closer to the sensibilities of Pixar films; in that it has an edge to it, and it has humor that will fly above the heads of most of its target audience, but will delight parents. There are references to classic Bugs Bunny, ‘Breaking Bad’, Chinatown, and a (near as I could tell in my first viewing) shot-for-shot copy of the wedding reception from The Godfather, just to name a few. This movie is chock full of really fun (and funny) easter eggs, and I am sure someone has already started to dissect it with their review copy. However, as I saw it in theaters with my nine-year-old (who LOVED it), I will have to wait for the home video release for that.
We enter this film in a world where animals of all kinds where once the mindless and sometimes savage creatures that we know in our world. There was the predator, and the prey. Then they evolved. ALL of them. That is how we are introduced to our protagonist, the adorable (Don’t say cute!) bunny rabbit Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin), performing in the school play about the history of animal kind. She is a can-do girl, with big dreams, and a bigger heart. She wants to do something that no bunny has ever done, and that is to become a police officer in the big city of this world; the eponymous Zootopia. Whether it’s being confronted by a bully (a fox), or being spoken to by her parents (simple carrot farmers) about the impossibility of achieving her dream, Judy simply will not quit. Fast forward 15 years to the police academy – which I can’t be sure but I’m think might’ve been the grounds from the “Police Academy” movies – where she is outmatched, outpaced, and beaten-down. She perseveres, however, and is able to achieve her dream and is introduced at graduation by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) and Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate). However, upon her arrival in the big city, she is treated to a rude awakening, when instead of being assigned to the streets doing the real work that she wants to do, she is placed on parking patrol by Cheif Bogo (Idris Elba), who clearly has no use for her. Being who she is, instead of allowing it to get her down, she takes the task and excels. This is where she meets our other protagonist, a ne’er-do-well fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). He’s a street smart hustler who gets on Judy’s bad side right off the bat. But it’s not long before her desire to do real police work gets her into trouble. She chases down a thief through the streets and neighborhoods of Zootopia, in a clever and well-choreographed chase scene that shows off several of the varying neighborhoods of the city, but gets her in hot water with the chief. With the possibility of losing her job looming, Judy volunteers to help find a missing otter, when the otter’s wife interrupts their meeting. Left with few clues and no help from the police, she must turn to the last person she would ever expect to reach out to for help: Nick Wilde. This leads them on an exciting (and sometimes surprising) journey through several plot twists and turns, some of which even caught me by surprise. I don’t want to going to spoiler territory and ruin this truly wonderful and surprising film for anyone who might see it, but I will say that everything is not as it seems in the big city, and sometimes the good guys are the bad guys, and vice versa.
This is where this film begins to share with us a lesson; a mirror on ourselves, from which we & our children who see this film may be able to really learn. A lesson on how to treat everyone with respect, to never give up on their own dreams, and that deep down we really are all the same. I have learned a lot of lessons over the years from Disney films, most of them bad. I’ve learned that for the story to be good one of the parents has to be dead or missing (Toy Story, Bambi, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Lilo & Stitch, etc…), or for someone to be successful, someone else has to die (The Lion King). If your significant other is abusive, somewhere under there is a heart of gold, no matter how much they abuse you (Beauty & The Beast). The ugly guy never gets the girl (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). I could go on all day. This is the first Disney film that I can remember having a really powerful, and really salient message for kids (and grownups) which resonates strongly without being preachy or needing some tragedy to which most people can’t (or shouldn’t have to) relate. There are some (amongst my more conservative friends), who will see this film and scream about “Social Justice Warriors” taking over the world and ruining America, but the way that this film addresses the subject of racism (in ways both subtle and in your face), and how we handle the differences within society, actually end up being rather powerful and even heartwarming. The writers of this film take the age old literary device of replacing people with animals to convey a message that people may not otherwise want to hear – like in many of Aesop’s fables, and it is used perfectly in this film. There’s some very deep messages in this film about what it means to be human, about what it means to overcome obstacles, and how not to allow ourselves to be sidetracked from what we really want by the ugly world around us. To top it off, this movie is just a heck of a lot of fun. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I give this movie 4 1/2 out of 5 Paws!