Zootopia doesn’t necessarily break any new ground. A film centered on anthropomorphic animals walking-and-talking their way through their own animal-centric big city, it harkens back to the ever-vibrate DNA of the company — present since their namesake painstakingly drew Mickey Mouse cartoons for a quick buck, only to wind up with a multi-billion fortune. And we’ve come a long way with this territory: We’ve got Bugs Bunny, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Cat in the Hat, Charlotte’s Web, Madagascar, Scooby-Doo, Stuart Little, Yogi Bear, Dr. Dolittle, Babe, Fantastic Mr. Fox, BoJack Horseman, A Talking Cat!?!, Norm of the North (!), direct-to-DVD Air Bud sequels, Animals on HBO. The list goes on. But Zootopia — the latest from directors Bryon Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) — doesn’t take pride in the originality of its concept, but rather the innovation in execution. And in that sense, it’s full of (wild) life.
I mean, the story is kinda familiar, kinda not. Since childhood, small-town gal Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) has set her sights on one goal: to become the first-ever rabbit police officer. But cops are normally, you know, pigs —or, perhaps, bigger, more intimating animals. Because of her meek size and the nimble figure found inside her genetics, everyone suggests she move into the carrot farming business with her mom and pops (voiced by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake, respectively). And even though she gets berated and picked on by bullying foxes and other larger, imposing animals around her, she doesn’t let them get the better of her. She makes herself tougher, stronger, fiercer than any cotton-tailed creature has ever been before, and it earns her a cushioned public service position away in the ever-growing Zootopia — a lavish, expansive city unlike any other in their furry little world.
Her parents beg her to reconsider, afraid of what dangers lurks away from the comforts of small living. But Judy has a dream, and she’s going to follow through on it, no matter what it takes. So with her bags packed, her train ticket in hand and her eyes opened bright and wide, she makes her way towards the marvelous city of Zootopia . And it’s definitely a jungle of its own, with crooks running rapid and shady personalities everywhere you turn. All perfect for an aspiring law-abider like Judy, but Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) thinks otherwise. Instead of chasing around bad guys or discovering what happened to eight missing subjects from the area, she’s assigned a far less glamorous job: parking patrol. Despite her qualms, this little rabbit who could makes the most of her opposition, writing 200 tickets before the clock strikes noon and keeping a close eye on any parking meter in sight.
And in the midst of such hard work, Judy runs into the likes of Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a sly fox of a con man who’s made a living tricking others. She takes notice of the sneaky individual, but doesn’t quite have the authority yet to lock him up for his dubious affronts. But when given the chance to assert herself beyond giving out parking violations, she quick realizes Nick might be her only hope towards catching the man response for all these missing individuals around the city. Though they obviously don’t get along at first — Judy practically blackmails Nick into doing her bidding — his street smarts and her cunning attitude prove to be the perfect pairing towards taking down the nefarious foes surrounding them. And in the process, they’ll prove foxes and rabbits might —dare I say it — be able to learn how to work together in harmony.
Sounds cute enough, right? It is. There’s a lot to find appealing in Zootopia, a movie that’s objectively likable enough in its execution and character design and not without its self-aware charm. The animation is among the most vibrant and eye-popping the animation studio has produced in some time, with a rotating cycle of inspired set pieces, noteworthy side characters and easy-on-the-eyes fluidity. And the voice acting all-around — which also includes Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk and Shakira, the latter proving the film’s signature original single, “Try Everything” —is just fantastic, but it’s namely our perfectly cast leads that stand out. It’s actually among the best vocal performances I’ve seen in a Disney movie in a good while, with Goodwin allowing the sweet sentimentality and goodhearted persistence of our lovable lead to ring true with each step (or, more appropriately, hop), and the cunning wit of Bateman’s familiar voice always singing within his coolheaded character. The pacing always snaps with its sharp claws, constantly adding momentum, laughs, thrills, tons of hearts and lots of intelligence to the fun, and the writing from Phil Johnston (Wreck-It Ralph) and co-director Jared Bush almost always finding clever, imaginative avenues for Zootopia to thrive from.
Again, there’s a lot to like about this new animated feature, and yet not necessarily a ton to love. That’s because — much like Big Hero 6, the studio’s last animated feature — there’s a generic familiarity to the proceedings that’s hard to completely shake off. As I’ve stressed in the opening paragraphs, Zootopia’s similarities to its big screen peers, and even small-screen competition, is a list that goes on and on and on. It’s not as if this new movie lives in their shadow necessarily. As stressed before, that it knows its limitations and often works against them is its greatest assist. But it often doesn’t quite feel like enough; it’s almost as if we’ve been here before, and done this all already — even before the first frame enters onto the screen. There’s inventiveness throughout, but it doesn’t necessarily feel super fresh. There’s an exciting possibility that anything can happen, but such hopes don’t get lived up to their fullest potential. It’s a worthwhile effort that just doesn’t quite have enough to be won over head-and-heels by, but then again, there’s certainly enough cuteness and squeeze-worthy personalities on-screen to make the tidings worth the ride.
And then we get to the surprise racial commentary in the last act of this film, which most certainly doesn’t come out of nowhere but provides a timely, thoughtful commentary that wasn’t at all expected from such a comically lighthearted Disney fable. And without getting into spoilers, I give them major props for tackling such heavy, media-friendly controversy in such an accessible, if fairly obvious, manner. There are undoubtedly going to be quite a few conversations between young kids and their parents on the car ride home from the theater, and though many of these parents likely won’t delve deep into the subject matter at hand until their children are a little older perhaps, applause should be given for producing a platform to tackle such meaty, complex topics in a manner that’s friendly, understandable and universally relatable. It’s easily what puts Zootopia above the ranks of their wishy-washy last feature, and closer to the thoughtful depths of Pixar’s excellent Inside Out. Not quite, mind you, but it definitely gets close in its best moments.
But does including such discussion-worthy material in their film warrant it a must-see on its own? Not completely. Beyond its heady themes by the end, Zootopia is, ultimately, just an enjoyable but mildly forgettable family romp about learning acceptance, friendship and adversity against the odds — morals Disney has, in fact, not found unfamiliar in their past films, much like the general concept at hand here. It’ll win over children for sure, and parents will find enough to make the trip worthwhile. It might not make Frozen money, but it could get pretty close. So in that sense, it’s a win-win for everyone. I just wish the Mouse House found just a little more here to make this animal feature stand out amongst the herd — if you get my drift. It’s a little too conventional to stand against its predatory instincts and, sometimes, it’s good to indulge your wild side.