I can’t decide whether it’s ironic or apt that the wonderful Zootopia comes out the same weekend as the dreadful London Has Fallen. It is perhaps both, since Zootopia is the anti-London Has Fallen — thematically and artistically. Now, I’m not one to gush wildly over animated films — especially computer-animated ones. Oh, I’ve liked a few, but it’s rare that I put one in the must-see category, which is what I’m pretty much doing with Zootopia. (And bear in mind, I’m the guy who’s still trying to figure out why people loved Inside Out last year.) No, I did not go into the film expecting much. It looked like the standard-issue “Believe-in-Yourself” stuff that kiddie films have been feeding their audiences for years, and there certainly is some of that. Plus, the lead characters — especially Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) — looked just too bright-eyed and cute, and that is a minor issue. (As concerns Jason Bateman’s sly fox Nick Wilde, I went in thinking of Tim Burton’s claim he was fired from Disney for not being able to draw cute foxes.)
But the truth is that just looking at the character designs — even looking at the scene stills — gives very little indication of what Zootopia looks and feels like while it’s moving. The film is stunningly beautiful and detailed, and boasts moments of genuine film noir atmosphere in its darker corners. (And, thank goodness, it has those darker corners). There really seems to be a solid world — or worlds — here. The whole concept of outlying areas being pockets of tribalism and the big city of Zootopia being a kind of melting pot “where anyone can be whatever they want” is wonderfully rendered in Judy Hopps’ train journey from her family carrot farm to Zootopia. In fact, it is rather breathtaking. Similarly fine is the depiction of the fact that even melting pots tend to break down into factions where like seeks like, creating microcosm neighborhoods reflecting where the residents came from.
The plot — or at least the setup — is no great shakes, with Judy coming to Zootopia to pursue her dream of being a police officer. Unsurprisingly, the fact that she passes training with flying colors (by learning to play to her strengths) doesn’t keep her from being dismissed by the other, larger police — generally rhinos, tigers, water buffaloes, elephants, etc. Worse, her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), makes her a meter maid. Determined to make good — especially after being flim-flammed by con artist Nick Wilde — Judy tries too hard and ends up with an assignment to find a missing otter. The catch is that she has 48 hours to crack the case or resign. It comes as no great surprise that Judy ends up teaming with Nick on this seemingly impossible task. More surprising is that the mystery element is pretty solid and well-developed — and, as previously noted, with a genuine film noir tone.
It’s fast and funny and filled with pop culture references. And, yes, the joke that’s the core of one of the movie’s trailers about sloths running the DMV is even better in the context of the film (and there’s a great subsequent gag on the same topic). But the truth is that all of this — the self-realization, the mystery, the comedy, the gorgeous design — is actually at the service of a theme about the evils of racial profiling and stereotyping. And there’s nothing timid about it or the way it’s presented. It even goes so far as to delve into the root causes of prejudices as learned behavior. Amazingly, however, Zootopia never feels preachy, because this aspect of the film is an inherent part of its story. It all feels of a piece. While it’s true that children are not apt to understand the implications of it all, they may take away more than is casually assumed. It may not be the duty of an animated fantasy to be relevant — and some of the relevance may be happenstance — but it’s worth noting when one is. Regardless, it’s a very good movie with a very good message — in fact, it’s one of the best films to come along so far this year. Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.