Winning performances, gumshoe plotting and tricky social commentary elevate Zootopia above its rote computer animation
Zootopia Walt Disney Studios
Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Screenplay: Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
Starring: The voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, J.K. Simmons and Alan Tudyk
Rated PG / 1 hour, 48 minutes
March 4, 2016
(out of four)
If crafting a shrewd racial allegory is what it takes to get animation taken seriously, I suppose I'm all for it.
Indeed, the most intriguing development that could have come out of the spring release of Disney's latest in-house animated feature is its unexpected status as a legitimate talking point, specifically for its thematic concerns. It's an unusual place for a movie like Zootopia to find itself, unfortunate as that may be; animated movies are often praised, but too often ghettoized as a secondary segment of cinema. Y'know, for kids! (This is not a knock on critics themselves, the best of whom routinely recognize animation's place throughout film history, but on a broader scale about how, or in what context, animated movies are ingested into the cultural conversation.)
But regardless of those trends, Zootopia - from writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston and directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore - was almost instantly taken more seriously than most of its contemporaries. And it's easy to see why. Under the conceit of a story about a modern industrialized society populated by animals of all different species living side by side, the film makes its sociological parallels clear from the start.
We're used to seeing anthropomorphized animals to do all sorts of things, but negotiating the cultural differences inherent to a diverse society and confronting the biases and inequalities therein? That's kinda new - at least as a guiding storytelling strategy. It's not strictly a thematic adornment, either; the entire narrative framework is driven by it. Every character's story is about overcoming one institutional bias or another; every relationship is about overcoming one set of prejudices or another. Of course this is all handled very playfully; its commentary is softened by a light comic temperament, and the fact that it's so darn polite.
Politeness and mutual respect are the agreed-upon pillars around which this titular society has been based. Citizens of Zootopia and its surrounding areas proudly recount the story of their evolution from natural enemies - predators and prey - to cohabitants, but remnants of the past stubbornly remain. Certain shops won't sell their products to certain species. Some animals are naturally, even irrationally and subconsciously, fearful of others. The film's plucky rabbit protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), has to fight against built-in institutional biases to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a police officer for a department that has never hired a rabbit. Her parents aren't keen on the idea, either; they don't even like the idea of her being in the big city. Too many foxes. And you know how you have to be careful around foxes.
If her parents' prejudices (and, much to her chagrin, her own unconscious ones) weren't enough already, once she's on the job she has to deal with her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a buffalo who puts her on traffic duty instead of actual case work. Rabbits don't belong on the force.
What's smartest about Zootopia is that it's not binary or simplistic in its analogies about cultural and racial conflict. It works best on a micro, scene-to-scene level because of the way it shows little behaviors, assumptions and interpersonal scenarios playing out. Though there are, from a big-picture standpoint, characters that are more generally analogous to specific human demographics (minorities or other marginalized groups in particular), the filmmakers don't limit themselves to making the metaphors too strict, and it would be foolish to try to make every moment and every scene fit snugly into a exact allegorical structure. Bush and Johnston shrewdly explore communication itself - body language and physical signals, behaviors that change depending on the group setting, circumstances that dictate what word you do or don't use, all the tacit social agreements these animals begrudgingly follow. This city may be beautifully integrated, but that doesn't mean everyone understands - or accepts - everyone else.
Story-wise, what ends up emerging is essentially a private-detective movie - and a very self-aware one at that, pulling from the traditions of detective fiction and film noir. Technically, Judy is a police officer - but as both a newcomer and an unofficial outcast, she has no support once she volunteers to investigate a missing-person (er, missing otter) case, and has to strike out on her own. Well, not quite on her own - there's also the street-wise hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a red fox who reluctantly helps Judy and eventually, of course, becomes her most trusted companion.
Given the specific nature of the narrative that plays out, Zootopia could well have used a noirish title. The Big Microaggression. The Naked Confirmation Bias.
What gives me the most hesitation about the film's elevated critical status is the animation itself, which is ... well, which is fine. Fine, but hardly the best that animated cinema has to offer, nor anywhere close to it. There's this strange disconnect - more than likely Zootopia will take its place as one of the animation hallmarks of this decade, yet it falls short in the most fundamental definition of that category. To be clear, this is supremely sophisticated computer animation - my knock is not its proficiency but its artistry. The images are attractive in a sort of blandly forgettable way. There is nothing especially imaginative in its character designs. It looks like you would expect an expensive 2016 computer-animated movie to look. Not bad, but when you compare it to what's being done by other studios and filmmakers working in the same medium, Zootopia is rather conspicuously subpar - almost vulgar.
Its best visual storytelling comes in the clever way certain scenes are composed - like Judy and Nick's foray to an animal nudist resort, with moment after moment reminding us how hilariously obscene the sequence is, except for the fact that we're watching animals - and animals with conspicuously absent genitals, at that.
There's also a nicely staged moment between Nick, Judy and the assistant mayor Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a sheep and the town's assistant mayor. As Dawn sits in front of a computer screen, her face is obstructed as Nick decides he has the right to fondle the fur atop Dawn's head (muttering some recognizably flimsy excuse like "She doesn't mind" or "she likes it"). The framing of the shot is crucial to the very specific feeling generated by the scene, which otherwise proceeds without comment. The movie has its share of similarly conceived and staged moments, making up in composition what it lacks in visual imagination. Zootopia is buoyed by strong voice performances, a finely executed pulp story and a few impressively unexpected pop-culture impulses (a Godfather subplot, for example). And most of all it's clever and thoughtful in its approach into territory where few studio animated films venture. Still, I couldn't help but think how much more could have been evoked, emotionally and otherwise, if the film had really taken advantage of the delivery device of its exalted ideas.