Of all of the movies with talking animals coming out in 2016, Zootopia seems to stand out above the rest. Now Disney and anthropomorphic animals is nothing new, starting out with Mickey and his friends to Robin Hood and The Great Mouse Detective. Zootopia, however, is the first movie with nothing but talking animals from Disney in quite a long time.
Personally, I was excited to see where the filmmakers would take this concept using computer animation. From the directors/writers Byron Howard from Tangled, Rich Moore from Wreck-It-Ralph, The Simons and Futurama, and Jared Bush creator of the Disney animated series Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero. With the directors, writers and animators taking research trips to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Africa, audiences are sure to get an intricate and detailed animal world.
This film takes place in a world populated by evolved anthropomorphic mammals. In the modern, civilized mammal city known as Zootopia, predator and prey live together in harmony. In Zootopia, anyone can be anything. Judy Hopps is Zootopia’s first rabbit police officer on a force comprised of large, mostly predator animals. She is assigned meter maid duty and seems to not be taken as seriously by her fellow police officers. Determined to prove herself worthy, Judy jumps at the chance to solve a missing mammal case and must ally with a sly, con-artist fox named Nick Wilde in order to solve it. As the film unravels and we are thrown deeper into the mystery, the case becomes much bigger than anyone could imagine. I have always adored stories about animals, especially if they are anthropomorphic. When I was younger and I would play with my stuffed animals, they would be different species of predator and prey and would all live together in peace. So to see a world similar in concept from a Disney movie is truly a childhood fantasy come true on the big screen.
The plot is well paced, it keeps moving and it rarely drags. One of the best aspects of the plot is the mystery along with several classic film noir elements. In film noir, the mystery starts out as something small but leads to something much bigger, the same thing happens in this movie. Other film noir elements I noticed in the film include scenes with stylized shadows and lighting, voice-over, witty, fast-paced and poetic dialogue, and an entire scene that takes place in the Rain Forest District with much of the color muted or completely gone to give the film a classic noir atmosphere. The mystery is full of twists, turns and so much about it genuinely surprised me. The mystery consistently stayed a step or two ahead of me. I could not predict where it was going or solve it and I have always appreciated a movie that can do that. It was a very well written detective story, one that kept me engaged from beginning to end. I would say the writers and directors put as much thought and effort into the mystery as they did the world and characters.
Zootopia has many humorous moments and the various types of jokes present throughout are sure to draw out some laughs, no matter what kind of sense of humor one has. Everything from slapstick and puns to clever wordplay and jokes aimed more toward adults. The writers and directors use the film’s animal populated world to create some pretty clever animal related jokes that can be easily missed if one is not paying attention. For example, Judy makes a quip about rabbits being good at multiplying as she does some math calculations. Much of the visual humor comes from audience expectations of what one would think these animals will be like, then subverting those expectations. For instance, the city’s most notorious crime boss is an arctic shrew, elephants never forget…except they do. The film’s humor is broad enough to appeal to kids, teens and adults.
The use of animals and anthropomorphic animals to tell stories of morality have been around for centuries. Some of my favorite short stories come from Aesop’s Fables. Zootopia continues this tradition through its smart and unflinching depiction of prejudice, both systematized and internalized. The film portrays prejudice as something that is learned, it can reside in anyone and ignorance can take on different forms. The film also shows how different types of discrimination have different levels of harm; from being belittled and harassed to being refused service and dismissed as a criminal. By making these characters cute, cuddly animals, the filmmakers can tackle pretty heavy themes about privilege, intersectionality, cultural conditioning, pandemics, using fear to control, politics, police brutality, even the mafia and drug trafficking.
The film’s themes and the issues that are tackled feel very natural in the world of the film and nothing feels forced. The film is about how messy and complicated the world is and even those with the best of intentions can be prisoners of their own bias and ignorance. In order to create change, one must realize their own culpability and change themselves, as Judy says: “No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.” Thus, the film’s brilliant weaving of themes into the story and characters allow it to be believable and relatable to many audiences. The fact that these themes are so topical and current in America right now also helps with the film’s buzz, I’m sure. This story is not something most people would expect from a company like Disney yet I think it is safe to say this movie has some of the best writing in the company’s filmography.
Another great aspect of this movie are the characters and how all of them are interesting, entertaining, and have sides to them one might not expect. All of the characters, Chief Bogo, Clawhauser, Mayor Lionheart, Gazelle, Dawn Bellwether, Mr. Big and many more are all useful and have a purpose, whether it is helping Judy and Nick with the case or presenting them with danger and challenges to overcome.
All of the characters and the actors who gave these characters voices are all wonderful. Judy Hopps is voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, Nick Wilde is voiced by Jason Bateman, Chief Bogo is voiced by Idris Elba, Mayor Lionheart is voiced by J.K. Simmons, Gazelle is voiced by Shakira, Dawn Bellwether is voiced by Jenny Slate and Mr. Big, an immensely entertaining homage to Vito Corleone in The Godfather, is voiced by one of my favorite voice actors Maurice LaMarche.
Another detail I really love and is a testament to the amount of detail and research that went into this movie, is how all of the characters still retained certain traits of their primitive ancestors in the wild as well as some of their instincts and limitations. For example, mice pressing up against walls when they are scared and buffalo needing glasses due to their naturally poor eyesight. Animal physicality is a major storytelling tool, from ear positions, nose twitches and tail movements, all help convey the complex emotions of these characters.
The main leads Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde are multifaceted, flawed, interesting, entertaining and perfect complements to each other. Judy Hopps is intelligent, optimistic, brave, determined, energetic, likable, self-righteous, ambitious and friendly. She wants to protect the innocent and make the world a better place. Being the first rabbit officer, she has much to prove as few mammals take her seriously. She wants to break the mold of how rabbits are perceived and it is her passion and determination that drives her to break expectations. She sees potential in individuals where others might not. Though she too is not without her flaws and I think they make her an even more realistic character. As a female viewer, I really related to Judy and I think many people will like her, admire her and want to see more of her.
Nick Wilde is sociable, sly, intelligent, charming, fast-talking, fast-thinking, cynical, laid-back, cunning, mischievous, opinionated and sharp-tongued. He is also pretty creative, orchestrating several different hustles all over Zootopia, all without “technically” breaking the law. He can almost talk his way out of anything. It is his view that Zootopia as an abysmal place, where dreams are nothing but unobtainable fantasies, and those who endeavor to become more than the roles that society stereotypes them in are wasting energy and time. His knowledge and skills prove useful to Judy in her quest to solve the case. As the film goes on, Judy and the audience learn how much more there is to this scheming fox than meets the eye.
Though they are very different, they share some personality aspects which makes their interactions and friendship all the more entertaining. They are both resourceful, mischievous and sassy. They are both loyal and protective of those they care for. They are willing to bend the rules to their benefit. Combining Nick’s street smarts with Judy’s law smarts and they are the perfect team. The relationship between Judy and Nick develops naturally and their chemistry is truly something to behold, especially since they are constantly trying to one-up each other throughout most of the film. They are able to carry the emotion of the movie as well as being entertaining. They learn to understand each other and change, forming a bond that is complicated, enduring, sweet and surprising.
Another impressive element of the film is the animation though it is Disney so at this point it is expected for the animation to be particularly noteworthy. This is some of the best production design and background animation I have ever seen in an animated film. There so many times in this movie I wanted to pause so that I could look at the artistry. The amount of detail the animators put into everything is truly remarkable. This looks like a world that anthropomorphic animals would create; everything from architecture and infrastructure to how furniture is designed to accommodate different sized animals.
Along with this is the excellent world building, which feels organic to the story and not like the audience is being lectured to. Zootopia is possibly one of the most creative locations in a Disney film. In order to accommodate the many animals that live there, Zootopia is comprised of various ecosystems side by side in a multicolored metropolis. Having the characters solve a mystery is a good way to explore the various districts of the city and build the world even more. The audience follows Judy and Nick to Little Rodentia, Tundra Town and the Rain Forest District, and each location is wonderfully creative and detailed. I wanted to see more of this world and Zootopia though I suppose this kind of reaction is a positive one. The audience also learns about what is expected of certain animals, what the predators eat, the origins of these animals from the way we know them to the way they are now and how they live among each other, are all told through the beautiful visuals in the backgrounds. For instance, when Judy’s father is telling her she should work in a field that is expected of a rabbit, we see stands of vegetables and flowers behind him run by other rabbits. In another scene in the movie, again in the background, we see boxes from a restaurant named
The audience also learns about what is expected of certain animals, what the predators eat, the origins of these animals from the way we know them to the way they are now and how they live among each other, are all told through the beautiful visuals in the backgrounds. For instance, when Judy’s father is telling her she should work in a field that is expected of a rabbit, we see stands of vegetables and flowers behind him run by other rabbits. In another scene in the movie, again in the background, we see boxes from a restaurant named Bug Burg, an eatery for predators serving food made of insects, thus answering the “What do the predators eat?” question.
The character designs are very reminiscent to me of the designs from classic Disney films like Robin Hood, The Jungle Book and The Great Mouse Detective. According to the director who came up with the concept for the film, the design choices were intentional. All of the animals are to scale with traits of their respective ancestors while also portrayed as more human. The character animation is also well done, being both smooth and energetic. These animals feel and move like animals, albeit animals walking on their back legs, with each one having their own specific movements. Putting all this together results in some exciting and intense actions scenes that are sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Every element of Zootopia is well thought out and well executed. Just when one thinks the artists at Disney are masters of their own craft, they still find ways to push animation to whole new levels.
It truly is a wonderful feeling when a movie meets and/or exceeds expectations. I expected this movie to be good but I never expected it to be one of Disney’s best films that is sure to become a Disney Classic, right alongside its predecessors Robin Hood and The Jungle Book. Zootopia is a perfect example of how Walt Disney Animation Studios has evolved to fit into the new millennium and the new audiences. In just 11 short years the studio went from Chicken Little to a film that has and will continue to resonate with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Zootopia is a movie that takes the concept of anthropomorphized animals to a whole new level, with an engaging and fascinating story, a well thought out world, likable and well-written characters, some of the best computer Disney animation, and powerful and well-crafted messages about prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. With so much going for it, it is not surprising Zootopia is rapidly earning a reputation of being not only one of Disney’s best films but also one of their smartest.
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