"Zootopia" Review

Never has the release of an animated film seemed quite so fortuitous. Consider the news headlines of police officers’ abuse of their power, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the discussion of prejudice and discrimination in our workforce and entertainment industry. Now consider the fact that Disney’s 55th animated feature, Zootopia, deals with all of these themes.

Yes. There lie important lessons about stereotypes, diversity, discrimination, and acceptance in what is effectively a children’s film. This is a big deal, especially in our current socio-political climate. But the timeliness and awareness of the film aside, the question remains: “Yeah, but is it any good?”

Yeah, it’s pretty good.

The almighty and all-powerful Walt Disney Company™ has been on a roll of hit animated films in the last few years, treating us to the creativity of Wreck-It Ralph, the marketability of Frozen, and the heart of Big Hero 6. So when trailers for Zootopia began to emerge, so too did the terrifying specter of Disney’s own 2006 monstrosity Chicken Little, which also featured anthropomorphic animals living together in harmony.

So praise be to the movie gods! Zootopia is not as smug nor as cynical as that slice of hot garbage. Instead, it’s exceedingly funny, often touching, and most of all, meaningful in a way that the aforementioned films are not. It deals with the here and the now—what is going on the world right at this very moment.

The story involves a spunky and optimistic rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who leaves her small-town carrot farm for the big city of Zootopia to become a police officer. But when she arrives on the force, she discovers that her diminutive stature and cuddly appearance make her the subject of ridicule and prejudice among her fellow officers. Determined to prove herself, Officer Hopps tackles a disappearance case with the help of an unlikely partner—a sly, slick-talking fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

For a majority of its surprisingly lengthy runtime (nearly two hours—rare for an animated film), Zootopia plays out like a police procedural. The film’s structure is fast and loose, as Nick and Officer Hopps traverse from one colorful location to the next, frantically in search of the next clue before it’s too late. This leads them to several amusing set pieces that rely mostly on animal-related puns, such as a DMV run entirely by sloths. As expected, this is all very charming.

But what may be less expected is how much underlying heart there is to this story, and it’s entirely to do with the relationship between Nick and Officer Hopps. These are fleshed-out and believable characters with strengths, weaknesses, and all of the facets in between. As we spend more time with them, the layers of their characters peel back, and we find deeper layers. They grow, change, and develop, almost as characters in a movie should do.

(Semi-Spoiler Alert: Skip to the last paragraph to miss a small gripe with the plot.)

Though its pros far outweigh its cons, Zootopia does have some detriments, the most glaring being the inclusion of the “twist villain.” The third-act reveal of a previously innocuous character as the “bad guy” is a plot contrivance that Disney has relied on for their last four features, and it’s getting a bit stale. In addition, there are a couple self-aware jokes that have no business being in this film, including a reference to Frozen that is so forced, it prompted an audible “Ughhh” from this reviewer.

Otherwise, Zootopia is a film that is not only charming, witty, heartwarming, and family-friendly—it’s important. It’s “woke,” as the kids say these days. It uses a seemingly simple story about cute animals as a vessel to relay deeper motivations and wise social commentary. And in a world that’s tumultuous, scary, and confusing, kids need movies like Zootopia. As Officer Hopps says, “No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you. Change starts with me. Change starts with all of us.” That’s a powerful message for any film to convey, let alone one starring a talking bunny.

Rating: A-

Directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “The Simpsons”), co-directed by Jared Bush (“Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero”), and produced by Clark Spencer (“Wreck-It Ralph”), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ comedy-adventure “Zootopia” opens in theaters on March 4, 2016.

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