Coming off the heels of Pixar’s Inside Out winning the Oscar for “Best Animated Feature,” rival Walt Disney Animation Studios wastes no time reminding us it was them – not Pixar – that released Frozen, the new standard of animation excellence that every competitor aims to mirror. Their latest effort Zootopia might not achieve Frozen’s pedigree of timelessness but it absolutely nails Disney’s upswing in brand progressiveness. Knowing it can’t beat Pixar at its own game, Zootopia sacrifices narrative originality for topical discourse and characterizations that are among the best in Disney’s repertoire of iconic protagonists. Tackling issues of racism, inclusion, police brutality, the power of words in a public forum, traditionalism versus millenial liberalism, and the dangers of biology oversimplification, there is almost no theme that Zootopia doesn’t pore over in impressive detail. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, alongside co-director/screenwriter Jared Bush and writing partner Phil Johnston, have created an animated film that’s as thematically dense as it is visually populous. Zootopia is a new animated classic that manages to educate as richly as it entertains, and is easily a contender for next year’s Oscar race in its assigned category.
Right from the start, audiences become emotionally invested in Disney’s newest animal kingdom. Zootopia’s two main characters, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde make for an unlikely pair whose dynamism comes from the trials and tribulations of interspecies pandemonium. Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy, an idealistic rabbit from humble beginnings who has Nina Simone-esque aspirations of becoming the first to accomplish something no one in her species has ever achieved: becoming the very first rabbit police officer. The odds are against her and even her parents feel as though her dreams, while admirable, are only going to delay the inevitability of her career as a carrot farmer. When she was just a cute bunny underestimated because of her appearance, Judy had a traumatizing experience with a young fox that only reiterated her parents’ “speciesist” notions that all foxes are devious and prone to violence. What wasn’t being fully addressed during Judy’s youth was that this was how all predators were stereotyped as, creating a giant gulf of mistrust and racial tension between “predators” and “prey” that continues to this day.
After graduating top of her class from the local police academy, Judy is then assigned to metropolis itself, Zootopia, courtesy of sheep Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) as part of an effort to diversify the ZPD’s cop roster. Unfortunately for Judy, Zootopia isn’t the paradise she envisioned – she lives in a scummy apartment and is given “Meter Maid” duties by her bull boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). Inflexible and stubborn to a fault, Chief Bogo sees Judy’s small stature, inquisitiveness and femininity as an affront to the traditional machismo way of fighting crime he’s used to supervising. Despite every effort to intimidate her into quitting the force, Judy’s resilience and commitment to realizing her potential remain concrete, and soon she finds herself on a missing persons case that cracks wide open the interspecies conflict bubbling just below the city’s surface.
Judy doesn’t solve this case alone; instead, she enlists the services of one of the most complexly written animated characters I’ve ever encountered, hustler fox Nick Wilde, voiced by the consistently brilliant Jason Bateman. Wilde is a poignant representation of any minority who’s ever been harassed, racially profiled or deemed lesser than the rest purely because of their race, and tragically forced into a life of crime because society blocks any shot of upward mobility. Wilde figures the only way he can thrive in Zootopia is to adopt and excel at the stereotypical characteristics placed upon him by the upper class. Although he and Judy both have a lot to learn about trusting one another without prejudice, they’re somehow able to work in unison to combat overwhelming intolerance perpetuated by conspiracy at the highest level of office. Whether or not you take Judy and Nick’s profound partnership as a subtle plea to turn criticism towards the government for promoting systemic racism in law enforcement, it’s impossible to deny that their unconventional alliance sends a powerful message worth hearing.
Even though the cityscape of Zootopia is ripe for visually charged sequences aplenty, the filmmakers never stray too far from their intimate characterizations. There might be one too many Godfather, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential references that seep their way into the storyline, but it’s near difficult to reject their comedic value. Is Zootopia’s ending a bit too succinct and convenient by way of deus ex machina? You bet, but if that keeps the film from ultimate perfection then so be it since what’s largely on display is an astute reading of the contemporary world, fittingly seen through the eyes of creatures who’ve experienced social conflict longer than humans have existed. Offering plenty of family fun between all the appropriate lessons imparted, Zootopia is far and away the best animated film since The Lego Movie.
Walt Disney Studio’s Zootopia opens nationwide this Friday, March 4th. Be sure to watch the blissfully chaotic trailer below!