Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catching Up: "Zootopia"

 4.5 / 5 

Ambitious, optimistic, naive Judy Hopps, newest recruit of the Zootopia Police Department, has been given 48 hours to crack the city's biggest mystery, and through a complicated series of events she's about to come face-to-face with Zootopia's notorious crime boss Mr. Big.

Judy's a rabbit, her unwilling partner in criminal detection is a fox named Nick, and Mr. Big, it turns out, is a tiny little rodent, a vole who looks and sounds an awful lot like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.  In fact, he's surprised his longtime rival Nick would intrude on such a day -- his daughter's wedding day.  Yet, he sighs, business must be done.

That one of the cleverest and most effective parodies ever attempted of The Godfather should be featured in a Disney movie starring bunnies, foxes, polar bears and voles is one of the many surprises in Zootopia, which blends equal parts Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Airplane! and 48 Hrs.

Young audiences, ostensibly the target for Zootopia, will know nothing of Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Walter Hill, and quite likely next to nothing about Eddie Valiant and Toontown.  They'll just love the plucky bunny voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who wants to fight crime and be heroic as the first (and smallest) rabbit member of the ZPD.  Kids will get a kick out of the way animals live and co-exist in Zootopia, and the movie uses a charming backstory to cleverly establish the idea that animals have evolved so much that predators and prey have inhabited the same city peacefully for many years.

That's where Zootopia gets most interesting, because what starts out as standard-issue authority-versus-rookie tension slowly becomes a dark and disturbing undercurrent to the movie, and as it does Zootopia becomes the first Disney animated film that really deserves its PG rating -- it ventures into some impressively dark territory.

It's got a story that's as well thought-out as, say, Roger Rabbit or even, I might dare say, that movie's inspiration, Robert Towne's script to Chinatown.  It may not be quite that good -- the Disney brand-management sheen gets in the way a bit too much -- but to say that Zootopia deserves comparison to Chinatown is not nearly as ludicrous as it may seem.

You doubt me?  I would have doubted me, too, before seeing it, but consider the scene in which the unexpected real villain of the piece reveals the motives behind the story -- which involves peaceful, law-abiding citizens being intentionally turned into violent criminals in an effort to build a climate of fear and distrust.  Sure, you've always been able to trust the dark-skinned jaguar who lives down the street, he's been a pal of yours for 20 years, but do you really know who he is and what he's capable of?  Wouldn't Zootopia be a better place if the minority predator population were simply removed, and everyone else could go back to living in harmony?

Even in a non-election year, that would be some pretty deep stuff for audiences of any age, but in the Year of the Donald, in the Year of the Muslim Terrorist, it takes on even greater resonance.  (And its ultimate happy-ending finding turns out not only to be one kids can get behind, but to be not all that far-fetched, really.)

Zootopia turns out to be about race relations, about minority rights, about racial and ethnic profiling, and about civil rights.  So, be thankful for one really important fact: It's funny.

It's charming, it's downright hilarious at some points (like in Mr. Big's scene), and it constantly engages the eye, the heart and the funny bone with its lightning-fast tours through the massive city of Zootopia, where virtually every street sign, shop sign, billboard and brand name hides a double meaning.  You could watch Zootopia for hours and hours simply to catch all of the jokes.

Then there are the endless references to other movies and TV shows -- from The Hunger Games to Frozen (multiple times), from the first Mission: Impossible to Lethal Weapon to Lost.  The latter is my favorite, using one of Zootopia composer Michael Giacchino's most unmistakable musical motifs in the middle of an action scene.

Zootopia is the rare movie that will satisfy everyone for the simple reason that it was designed by storytellers and pop-culture lovers who wanted to satisfy themselves, first.  There had to be immense glee every time someone brought forth an idea like Officer Hopps mobile phone, which has a logo of a carrot on it (with a bite taken out of it, of course) and notifies Judy that her mom and dad are requesting to "Muzzle Time" with her.  There's the scene in which sly fox Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) sells popsicles to lemmings, who of course line up to do what the other ones are doing.

Zootopia is a movie to be savored -- it took me a little over two hours to watch its 1 hr. 48 min. running time because I kept pausing the image and looking around at the environments. (In one part of town, rodents shop Mousey's and Targoat.)  But I also found myself unexpectedly intrigued in the central mystery.  Crime mysteries are a rarity in movies, and Zootopia has created one that is genuinely compelling, with a solution that not only isn't easy to suss out, but that also involves a hilarious and lengthy reference to Breaking Bad.

Yes, Disney's latest animated feature for kids has, as one of its central plot points, the purification of plants into potent drugs by a criminal element (including two rams named, you guessed it, Walter and Jesse).

Zootopia is not afraid to go where the jokes take it.  Or the story.  While the timeliness of some of those jokes may make the shelf life of Zootopia considerably shorter than, say, Cinderella or The Lion King, its super-current pop-culture references at least ring true for now, and they are funny.  As a whole, the film itself rings just as true and is just as funny, which makes it a complete and utter surprise, a charming animated movie for kids that may work even better as an engrossing mystery for adults about kidnapping, racial tension, genetic experimentation, the link between the drug trade and government and -- well, let's just stop there before you get the wrong idea again.

Zootopia works quite well -- better than it should -- as a crime drama.  But you've come for the fluffy bunnies, the talking foxes, the sweetly scratchy-voiced sheep, the hilariously time-challenged sloths, and the inventive visual design.  Zootopia doesn't disappoint in any of that ... or in everything else it offers.  It's an intriguing evolution in the form and style of animated films, a step forward for Disney into a more robust, more relevant sort of animation than maybe has ever been tried in the company's history.  Zootopia is the extraordinarily rare Disney movie that tries to be different and better than any of its predecessors, and for that you can, at the very, very least -- and with a high degree of certainty, say: It would have made Walt happy.

Viewed June 18, 2016 -- VOD


  1. Nice review. Zootopia is definitely a diverse and versatile film.

    - Zach (

  2. Thank you for the compliment!