Almost a year ago I attended a presentation with John Lasseter. He was showing four upcoming projects, two from each of the animation studios under his umbrella. We saw a clips of The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, Pixar offerings that seemed a far cry, at least on first blush, from the film that was premiering at that time (Inside Out). If the future looked a bit bleak on the Pixar front, on the Disney Animation side there were glimpses of hope. Moana looks to be solid, with gorgeous animation and an and exotic setting. Yet it was Zootopia, something that easily could be a one-note joke, that really piqued my interest. I had a good feeling about what I saw, and had to wait many months to see if my intuition would prove to be true.
Finally getting to see the work, I’m pleased that the film exceeded my high expectations. I adored this film, full stop. I loved the animation, the story, the characters, and the world the filmmakers have created. I even loved the obnoxious parts – the Godfather references that are preposterous, the sloth-at-DMV sequence I’ve now seen a half-dozen times. I loved the texture of the bunny’s fur, I loved the tooting of the mini-Elephant costume. There’s a wit and wonder at play her, and Zootopia is easily the equal of whatever film you wish to paint with a “classic Disney” brush. Walt, I’m guessing, would be pretty happy with what’s coming out of his studio these days.
Yet I also bet that some will dismiss the flick as a bit of fluff, another kids film chock-a-block with talking animals, pop culture references and easily-dated jokes. I think those people are wrong – the references are there, sure, but they feel completely at home and frankly as timeless as some of the films that are referenced. Most importantly, however, there’s the sophistication of the narrative – without giving too much away, the film manages to deal with notions of prejudice, tyranny, and how these two factors can collide in a myriad of ways, often supplanting our knee-jerk reactions to notions of right or fairness. Politically the film is timely, showing how assumptions about innate characteristics can lead to tragic overreaction, and equally how the notion of sticking up for the little guy can occasionally result in a tyrannical majority trampling underfoot those that they feel to be other.
All this political stuff is handled deftly and intelligently, never coming across as ponderous and pandering. In fact, it’s perfectly in keeping with the film’s Film Noir-roots, finding political allegory in the midst of a crime mystery. The fact that this is done by a cute bunny and a sly fox makes things even more splendid. Archetype after archetype is upended as the film toys with our expectations and prejudices to call into question our own allegiances and assumptions.
The casting is sublime, from Idris Elba’s booming voice through to a squeaky and perfect Jenny Slate. The key leads are fantastic, with Jason Bateman bringing his implacable smarm to the role, while Ginnifer Goodwin does stunning work oscillating between upbeat enthusiasm and genuine moments of pathos.
Visually the film borrows from Chuck Jones and Francis Ford Coppola in equal measure, and the film isn’t afraid to get a bit dark in order to shine some light. The world feels epic and thoroughly designed and I look forward to many more re-watches to catch more visual jokes cast in the background of the animal metropolis.
One doesn’t need the dourness of Orwell in order to use animals to tell sophisticated stories about politics within the context of a children’s tale, and I frankly never imagined we’d get something this rich and wonderful from what seems a silly little idea.
I can only hope you’ll have as much fun visiting Zootopia as I did – following up on Frozen, another neo-masterpiece, we’re seeing yet another golden age from Disney Studios. With a deep, complex yet accessible storyline married to a visually sumptuous telling of an animal tale, the film is an absolute treat, feeling, at least to me, the equal of any classic Disney flick.