BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | March 2, 2016
The greatest joy of going to the movies, for me, is the joy of discovering something that the filmmakers have worked to turn into something special. Week after week, I attend the Hollywood product that regurgitates shopworn plots and tired characters that aren’t much deeper than your average rain puddle. Yet, every once in a while I come across something that breaks the mold, swings for the fences and tries to be better than average.
It gives me great joy to bestow this praise on Disney’s Zootopia, a movie that by all accounts should be just a forgettable piece of animated weekend movie fodder, but instead is creative, colorful, funny, touching and tells a story that is actually kind of compelling. It also creates a wonderful world, one in which animals are the dominants, human beings apparently don’t exist and every species is sectioned off into their own little part of town. Elephants live in the larger part of the city; mice live in a tiny part of the city, etc. Everyone has their place and most have apparently made an agreement not to cross the boundaries. The inhabitants are divided up between predators and prey.
I love this environment. It reminds me of the town in Pinocchio, the sea in Finding Nemo or the inner-cranium of Inside Out. It’s always a good sign when you look at a heavily detail and populated world on screen and secretly imagine all the nooks and crannies that you’re going to explore in slo-mo on the DVD.
Of course, inside that world is a story, and it is a good one. Zootopia focuses on a spirited bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin from “Once Upon a Time”), a rabbit from down on the farm who is aiming for the impossible dream of becoming a big city cop. The impossible part comes from the fact that in Zootopia rabbits don’t become police officers, they stick to carrot farming. That job prospect is left to far more efficient (not to mention more menacing) predators like rhinos, yaks and lions. Judy’s well-meaning parents are concerned about her dream and remind her that “It’s good to have dreams as long as you . . . you know . . . don’t act on them.”
Well, she does act on them and becomes part of Zootopia’s brutal police force, led by the humorless Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), a yak who has no real need for a rabbit on the force and assigns her the job of meter maid. Judy, of course, excels at this. From here, I’m going to be careful because the plot that develops from there is a doozy. She unwittingly gets herself mixed up with a sly hustler fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is scamming the elephant community and gets information that an Otter has gone missing.
What comes of this is a really great and kind of compelling mystery. The writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnson have really worked to create something that has our attention, and something that builds piece by piece. I’ll be honest, I had no idea what lay at the end of the trail of clues. This is extremely rare for animated movie. In most cases you can see the end of the mystery before it even gets started, but here they respect our intelligence by letting us figure out what is happening. I realize that I’m being vague but I’m trying to keep the details light.
The beauty of Zootopia is in the designs and the color. The filmmakers here are so generous with their artistic freedom that we feel that we have entered a new kind of world. Every kind of animal is represented and every kind of animal seems to have been given its own kind of space, unlike other movies in which the animals all seem to be relatively the same size. Elephants and rabbits, and mice and foxes and weasels and yaks exist in the same space but their proportions are exactly right.
I was also excited about Judy Hopps. This is a fun character, not a token hero, but a gal who wants to realize her dream and has stars in her eyes. She fun to listen to, but she’s also fun to watch. She has a spirit and a personality that seem original and not something that feels like it comes off the assembly line. The details of her body language are something special here. Animation is getting better and far more intricate and it is a delight to watch. I also liked the idea that she is attempting the break the mold and get into a profession that all others are telling her that she has not business pursuing, not even her parents. She wants this, and she won’t let anything stand in her way. But it isn’t the case of a character trying to succeed at something that she’s not good at. She just has to overcome the cynicism of those who doubt her.
If there is a drawback to Zootopia, it’s something that crops up in the second act. This movie has an overwhelming amount of political correctness that seemed to wash into the plot from out of nowhere. Judy makes a negative public statement about predators that makes her pariah of the community and, for me, it was a development that arrived with a clang. This was a movie on the fast track of energy and originality and this was an element that I feel that the movie didn’t really need. In a movie that creates an entirely new world, why add elements of our own?
My other problem was in the character of Chief Bogo, Judy’s superior officer. He’s a dead serious character whose function is to always be putting Judy in her place. That’s fine, except that the character has no humor; he turns up to spoil her progress and it felt more like an irritation. I thought it would have been more fun if he was molded more as a funny parody of all those wrong-headed police chiefs from the Dirty Harry movies who were always chewing Harry out even while the evidence was staring them in the face. This character seemed, I don’t know, unpleasant.
Those objections aside, I found Zootopia to be far better than I might have expected. It creates a bright, fun, and intricate world that didn’t always feel like the filmmakers were motivated by marketing. Somebody cared about this story, they cared about this production and they seemed to have had as much fun putting it together as I did watching it.