Zootopia, according to advertising, is the best film from Disney Animation in 20 years. Sure the studio stumbled for a while starting in the mid 90’s, but that claim puts this punny animal drama ahead of some stellar films. Pocahontas, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Mulan, for example fall into that time period. That’s not to mention their relatively recent renaissance that includes critically acclaimed works like Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero Six. No, “best in 20 years” is no small claim. And nobody in their right mind would probably believe it.
The marketing for this film has focused heavily on animal puns and furry gags. Yes having sloths run the DMV is smirk-worthy. Yes pairing a bunny and a fox together for a cop movie sounds like easy comedy in the making. All in all, there is nothing about this movie that wouldn’t have you convinced that it will be a great time for the kiddos, but probably nothing more, and the animal jokes will probably get old pretty quick. That is, until you watch it. Zootopia is so much better than anyone could reasonably expect it to be. It’s fantastic, actually.
A bunny with big dreams, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is Zootopia’s first rabbit cop. An unusual amount of missing mammal cases sounds like a chance to prove herself and make the world a better place. Putting her career and dreams on the line, Judy is forced to team up with Nick Wilde, a deviant fox (Jason Bateman) to get to the bottom of things before it’s too late. Like herself and everyone around her, though, there is more to this case than meets the eye.
An all star cast give souls to the animated mammals, including Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Shakira, Octavia Spencer, Tommy Chong, Bonnie Hunt, Alan Tudyk, and John DiMaggio.
Like that animated ogre of years gone by, this film has many layers. On the surface it is a rollicking mystery caper built on a foundation of animal puns and similar jokes. You don’t have to work too hard though to peel back a few more layers. A thinly veiled, yet deftly subtle, story about racial bias, acceptance, dreams, and reality, Zootopia is incredibly slick and intelligent. It has a rock solid message, but tends to show it rather than tell it, avoiding becoming overly preachy or contrived. The puns, jokes, and cultural references too, though they are the focus of most of the trailers, more often than not are relegated to the background. A gag never overstays its welcome and (with one notable exception) is quickly past us as we move forward in the well thought out plot. Many of the incredibly clever jokes are hidden in the meticulous details of the film, there to get a smile from those who catch them but without being a distraction to the overall story. For example, Judy’s phone which looks awfully familiar, but has a stylized carrot on the back rather than the expected fruit. Some of the more obvious references are beautifully done as well, including one about Breaking Bad that had the audience laughing.
Never pandering, Zootopia accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of being incredibly entertaining for kids and adults while driving home accessible, yet complex, messages that don’t feel dumbed down. It’s never boring and the story maintains a freshness from start to finish. There are near Pixar level feels to be had and characters you actually care about. I might not agree with the critic who said it’s the best Disney Animation film in 20 years, but the fact that I actually have to think about that says quite a bit.
The gorgeous animation is never lazy and the attention to detail should not be understated. It might not be photo-real, but is just a beautiful looking cartoon that hearkens back to that golden age of nostalgia filled animated features of Disney of old.
Zootopia loses a few points from me for having an end twist I found rather predictable, but it’s still sure to surprise some and it’s understandable that a conspiracy plot not be overly complex in a children’s film. Even when it’s easy to see where things are going, it’s a joy to be along for the rollicking and clever ride.
Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film and still won’t believe me that “The sloth joke movie” is as good as it is.
My rating: Four out of five hats
Zootopia hops into 3,700 theaters, including IMAX 3D, March 4