Zootopia (2016) Review:
Animals Are Racist Too
In my review for Godzilla, I mentioned how Science Fiction movies have a tendency to be allegorical. The bright lights and cool sounds of a sci-fi movie are like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of real world issues go down. The same principle applies to animated movies, except sci-fi tends has a broader audience. Sci-fi movies are treated like the kids movies for people who consider themselves too old for kids movies.
Animated movies are typically made for kids. As such there’s a much more delicate act in making a movie with an underlying message, since the people you’re trying to reach are kids who unfortunately get bombarded with dreck like The Minions movie. Every once in awhile though, a movie like Zootopia comes along and reminds you that not only can animated movies do teach you something, but it’s so important when they do.
‘Zootopia’ is a movie that takes place in an alternate universe from our own. One devoid of humans but still containing human inventions like the iPhone. Imagine a world where animals evolved to have the intelligence necessary to develop a society in which lions, tigers and bears could coexist with creatures formerly known as their prey. Such a place would be something of a zoological utopia.
The main character of the film is a bunny called Judy Hopps, played by Ginnifer Goodwin. Judy comes from a family of carrot farmers (get it?) who has big dreams of becoming the first ever rabbit police officer in the big city known as ‘Zootopia’. She tops her class, gets the job, but when she’s tasked with being a lowly meter maid, she realises she might’ve been a little idealistic. When Judy gets wind of a recent wave of kidnappings throughout the city, she gets the chance to prove to the world and herself, that there’s more to her than meets the eye.
‘Zootopia’ is not a novel idea. It takes animals, anthropomorphizes them and juxtaposes their known instinctive behaviour against their assigned human roles for the sake of comedy. It’s been done in Madagascar, and the society that’s literally gone to the dogs has been seen in Bug’s Life. The strength of ‘Zootopia’ is not in its originality but rather what it does with an already familiar idea. Where previous versions have lightly rapped on the door, ‘Zootopia’ kicks it wide open.
The story of the film is not a revelation either. Judy teams up with a fox called Nick Wilde, played by an out of character Jason Bateman, as a local conman. The movie becomes pretty much a buddy cop film. She goes by the book, he’s never even read it. Along the way you meet the staple stand ins like the angry captain, played by Idris Elba, the corrupt mayor Lionheart, played by JK Simmons, and of course the one who you know is the villain the first time they’re on screen. As someone who knows the genre well, it wasn’t exactly full of surprises but it was still fun to pick out the cliches.
Those cliche standings aren’t eye roll inducing and work well especially in the context of the movie. See, ‘Zootopia’ has some well done world building. Just as today there exist prejudices based on centuries of human history, so too would there be in a world where animals literally used to eat each other. Sure you’re taught that you’re not supposed to be afraid of bears because what are you, a racist? Still, fear and instinct dictate that when the squirrel walks down the street, and the fox is headed in the opposite direction on the same street, the squirrel gets out the foxes way.
It’s the type of meaningful conversation that surprises you once you realise you’re having it. On it’s surface Zootopia seems to be just another animated movie with talking animals but almost immediately, you realise the content is way more mature than it seems to be. After seeing Inside Out I didn’t think I would be blindsided by a movies impactful message and stellar delivery again for a long time, at least not at that level. While I won’t say that Zootopia is quite as good as ‘Inside Out’, it nevertheless hit those notes really well, and puts itself at least in the same ball park.
As far as comedy goes, ‘Zootopia’ is not the type of movie where you’ll have a laugh a minute. It’s about as funny as a regular murder mystery which gets its humour from the back and forth of its leads. There’s of course the humour I mentioned that’s par for the course with talking animal movies, but it’s used in sparing quantities. The movie though never becomes too dark. It’s one of those cartoon films that is filled with substance but goes down easy like a light snack.
‘Zootopia’ is a really well made film. It’s character work is great, the voice work is absolutely stellar, and the creativity is about as apparent as it was in ‘Inside Out’ or anything that’s expected from truly great animation. It feels like the creators decided to take an idea and have fun with it in that true “It’s animated we can do literally anything” fashion. It’s still early but ‘Zootopia’ is actually one of the best films I’ve seen this year and I’m excited for more people to see it.
Rating = Big Screen Watch