Late last year, Pixar gave us a movie called The Good Dinosaur. It was supposedly set in a parallel timeline, in which the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event never happened and dinosaurs were free to keep on evolving for another 65 million years. The movie failed. In fact, it quite famously became the first indisputable commercial and critical failure in Pixar’s history, quickly swept under the rug in light of Pixar’s previous triumph with Inside Out and the pop culture tsunami that was Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But why did The Good Dinosaur fail? It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying — nobody could possibly doubt that the animation was sterling and the movie was overflowing with passion. No, probably the most crucial factor is that Pixar had this wonderful premise to build from and they couldn’t do a damn thing with it. The story was pathetically rote, predictable down to the second. What’s worse, scarcely anything would have changed if the film had ostensibly taken place before that extinction event 65 million years ago (though perhaps a bit more suspension of disbelief would’ve been necessary).
So here’s Zootopia, from Pixar’s rival siblings over at Disney Animation. And it succeeds where Good Dinosaur failed by starting with a similar premise, only to take it so much further in a completely new direction.
Our scene is set in a parallel timeline in which mammals of all different species have somehow learned to live in harmony. It turns out that animals can do quite a lot when they’ve agreed to stop eating each other. Sure enough, it’s so many thousands of years later and animals have evolved to the point where they walk on two legs, they speak with each other, they use technology, and they’ve built the massive city of Zootopia where they can all live together peacefully (in theory, at least, but we’ll get back to that).
Incidentally, all of this is initially conveyed at the opening by way of a grade school pageant. Is it contrived? Sure. Long-winded? Definitely. But the whole sequence is so creative and funny and adorable that it’s easy to let all of that slide and accept the exposition on its own terms. Which is emblematic of how this movie works.
The pacing leaves a lot to be desired, as the central mystery is advanced by oddly convenient discoveries and info-dumps, and certain events are clearly made to happen just so the filmmakers can check off the necessary boxes. It’s plainly obvious that the filmmakers were stuck trying to cram two or three hours’ worth of story into 108 minutes. But the good news is that the movie is so incredibly clever and funny — especially in the more contrived moments — that it makes the pill easier to swallow.
Seriously, I want to stress just how funny and smart this movie is. To wit: Did you see the trailer about the DMV run by sloths? No joke, that scene was every bit as funny in the full movie. This movie tells jokes about goddamn sloths in a way that is consistently and repeatedly funny. If that’s not evidence of crazy-talented split-second comedic timing, tell me what is.
In terms of content, the jokes are all over the map. We’ve got crude bodily humor jokes, we’ve got animal puns to the rafters, we’ve got sight gags, we’ve got witty comebacks, there’s situational humor, pop culture references, the list goes on and on. And yet it all feels cohesive because the premise allows for so many different styles and tastes to coexist. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, this film tells the story of Judy Hopps, a rabbit voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Through sheer force of will, Judy has put herself through police academy to be the very first rabbit in the Zootopia Police Department. In fact, all of the mammal residents of Zootopia are sharply divided between predator and prey, and Judy is the very first prey animal to ever serve in Zootopia Police. So naturally, Judy doesn’t just start out at the bottom of the totem pole, she’s beneath the totem pole.
(CORRECTION: A correspondent has since pointed out that there were other prey animals in the ZPD before Judy came along. The distinction is that the other prey animals are all large enough and strong enough to take care of themselves, while Judy is by far the smallest and physically weakest one on the force. In fact, I completely forgot to mention the special city initiative aimed at making the ZPD more diverse, which is implicitly regarded by the other characters as the only reason she graduated from the academy in the first place. It’s a neat little commentary on affirmative action.)
But again, Judy just doesn’t know when to quit and she’s so determined to make a difference in the world. That and of course she’s too damn proud to go crawling back to her parents’ carrot farm with her cottontail between her legs. So Judy wheedles her way onto a missing persons case. In fact, this is the same missing persons case that’s been exhausting the ZPD’s resources as more and more strange disappearances keep happening. So of course Judy quickly finds that the case is part of something massive, with ramifications that quickly engulf the entire city.
Because Judy can’t find help with any of her fellow officers, she instead ropes in Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox who’s been running scams on Zootopia streets for over a decade. I won’t go into details on how they meet, because that’s frankly a very long story. Suffice to say that Nick is the self-centered cynic while Judy is the optimist who’s out to make the world a better place. Judy is very straightforward, with such an encyclopedic knowledge of the system that she knows how to make it work to her advantage, while Nick is more slippery in the way he manipulates people and dances through loopholes. But what’s most important is that while Judy is out to defy stereotypes and be whatever she wants to be regardless of who says no, Nick has allowed himself to be so thoroughly beaten by social pressure that he has no aspirations to be anything other than a stereotypical fox.
This brings me to the predator/prey divide within Zootopia. Even though all mammals in the city theoretically live in harmony and it’s been many thousands of years since everyone agreed to stop eating each other, there’s still a lot of animosity between the two sets of species. Predators often look down upon the soft and supposedly weaker herbivores, while the prey animals are mistrustful of those with sharp claws and long fangs. Especially when there’s mounting evidence of predators — and only predators — going savage and lashing out in uncontrollable violent rages.
It becomes especially prominent in the third act, but characters all throughout the movie are divided very sharply along “predator/prey” lines. We see so many forms of discrimination and prejudice, from openly hostile riots (PG-friendly, of course) to casual sidelong glances, and it’s all done in such a way that it painfully reflects our own diverse, contentious, politically correct times. The obvious parallel is race, but religion, party affiliation, sexuality, or anything else expressed in terms of “us vs. them” will work just as well.
Kids will get the message that it’s okay to embrace diversity, to treasure what makes us unique as we accept and celebrate what makes others unique as well. Meanwhile, adults will hear the message about fear and paranoia driving us apart for someone else’s gain and wince at how relevant that statement is. In fact, there’s one character who turns the tables on the audience in a neatly meta way, stating that deep down, we’re all animals.
Then there’s the matter of Judy and her career ambitions. Obviously, the message here is to reach for the stars and chase your dreams, but there’s actually a lot more nuance going on here. The film goes a step further by stating that because we’re all different, we all have unique strengths and weaknesses. This means that we all have something to contribute to any given environment, but it also means that there will be goals we are simply not cut out for. I almost wish the film had spent a bit more time on that latter point — learning when to give up is one of the hardest things that any adult will ever have to learn. Especially after a lifetime of hearing the message that anyone can be anything if we just power through failure and never give up. But I digress.
The point is that the film very eagerly sets forth the message that by embracing what makes us special and fighting like hell to carve out some kind of niche, we can all contribute our own unique gifts to help make the world a better place. To put it another way, the movie simultaneously pushes a message of diversity and a message of persistence, blending the two together in such a way that it results in something more enlightening and uplifting than the sum of its parts. Masterfully done.
Let’s move on to the voice cast. It was occasionally tough to forget that I was listening to Jason Bateman’s voice, but he was still uniquely suited to play the character. Ginnifer Goodwin is such a huge part of why this movie works so well that I can’t praise her lead performance enough. Jenny Slate and Bonnie Hunt were both perfectly cast. Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons made me wish that they had more screen time. Octavia Spencer’s talent is pretty much wasted. Alan Tudyk (who’s quickly becoming Disney Animation’s equivalent of John Ratzenberger over at Pixar) is borderline unrecognizable as a character named “Duke Weaselton,” in a clever if forced nod to Tudyk’s character in Frozen. Nate Torrence’s voice grated on my nerves to the point where I wondered if he was voiced by Josh Gad.
(Side note: Speaking of Frozen alumni, keep an ear out for Kristen Bell. Apparently, she cameos as one of the DMV sloths.)
Last but not least is Shakira, here poking her head in to play pop superstar Gazelle. She also sings “Try Everything,” which is this movie’s presumed candidate for Best Original Song. And it’s… okay, I guess? I mean, it’s miles better than the dreadful list of Best Song nominees we got last year. Even so, I was sick and tired of this one by the time the end credits were done rolling, and I’d completely forgotten how it goes by the time I got home. Though the Michael Giacchino score… really, what else do I have to say? It’s a Michael Giacchino score.
And then we have the visuals. I should really hope it goes without saying that the visuals are flat-out incredible. Zootopia is split up into several different habitats, which means that we get to go exploring through many different landscapes and environments. What’s even better is that every space feels lived-in, and the film often goes out of its way to show various minutiae about how the city functions. All of this leads to a vibrant setting and a movie that’s overwhelming in scope.
What’s even better is that the filmmakers successfully convey a sense of wonder, even as the city does its best to chew up our protagonist and swallow her dreams whole. It maintains that sense of optimism about the world, showing what wonders we can build when we work together, even while acknowledging that no worthwhile achievement ever came easy. And of course, it adds to the central conflict of our main character — it’s so easy to get invested in this setting and our main character that we want to see her earn a place in this city, and every time she’s rejected, it’s delivered in such a way that we feel the pain right along with her.
Disney Animation is indisputably a force to be reckoned with, and Zootopia is further proof. It’s creative, it’s vibrant, it’s funny, it’s smart, and it’s very effectively used to convey themes that will resonate with moviegoers of all ages. The film was impressive enough in 2D, but I’m sure the 3D upgrade will be worth the cost. I can’t begin to imagine what the IMAX treatment would be like — personally, I’d rather wait for the Blu-Ray release so I could freeze-frame at will and try to find all the jokes tucked into every corner.
Looking ahead, it looks like this movie will be a great start to another impossibly good year in animation. And no, I’m not counting Norm of the North, why would I?