Movie Review: Zootopia

Can’t believe this is my first movie review of the year. What a crazy three months it’s been.

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Starring:
Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba
Director:s
Byron Howard (Tangled), Rich Moore, Jared Bush (Wreck-It Ralph)
Rating: PG
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Well Disney, that’s five in a row.

The so-called “third golden age” of films from Disney’s main animated studio is still going – at least for another year or so – because Zootopia is pretty fantastic. A cocktail of painstakingly realised world-building packed with culturally relevant sight gags, Zootopia sells a vision of an idealised world with an all-too-familiar undercurrent of ugliness bubbling underneath. It’s one of the sharpest allegories for real-world social issues I’ve seen in an animated movie, and while occasionally a little overzealous in its desire to ensure its message gets across, Zootopia never halts its refreshingly-paced plot or sacrifices the believability of its colourful characters to do so, making it a quality movie for all kinds of audiences. Thanks to co-directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush alongside a suite of animators at the top of their game, the House of Mouse has extended its hot streak.

The first thing worth saying about Zootopia, despite its narrative ambitions, is just how good it looks. It may seem a bit trite to call out the visuals of a CG animated movie in this day and age, when most of the big ones look so good already. However, this one really does represent a step up from Disney’s recent efforts, and even those of sister studio Pixar. The titular city of Zootopia is divided into several biomes to accommodate its diverse population of animals (think rainforest, tundra, desert etc) and while this is a great chance to showcase some stunning art direction, it almost seems like an excuse to show off on a technical level as well. The behaviour of icy fog, glistening raindrops and individual grains of sand is amazingly life-like, especially when combined with the way shadows unfold beneath orange sunsets and harsh street lights. Add in the inevitably amazing fur effects and character models that are always in motion, subtle or otherwise, and you have one of the best advertisements for 4K home video yet.

As for the story, it follows underdog protagonist Judy Hopps (the perfectly cast Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit born into a carrot farming family who dreams of being the very first bunny in the Zootopia police force. The opening of the movie comes straight out of the Frozen school of strange pacing – make it look like your movie is going to be about one kind of plot but then completely resolve that story before 15 minutes are even up and move on to the real meat of things. Standing up to bullies? Reaching your seemingly impossible dreams? Training montage to get there? All tropes that are done and dusted before you even see the big city.

The rest of Zootopia is all about baked-in cultural prejudices by way of an odd-couple mystery caper. Hopps soon realises her tiny stature and floppy ears come with somewhat of a career ceiling, and that she was only placed into the heart of the city because of the mayor’s “inclusiveness initiative”. If this sounds a bit on-the-nose, it kind of is, and there are times when it threatens to push into groaning territory, such as with a joke about the use of the word “cute”. But it’s still shocking how boldly Howard/Moore/Bush insert the timely socio-political metaphors.

The reason they work, ultimately, is because they serve the story and not the other way around. The reason that story works is because Judy’s unlikely ally, Jason Bateman‘s shady con artist fox character Nick Wilde, is just as fully realised a character as she is. Their banter is believable, their flaws very human, their shared moment of clarity refreshingly unorthodox.

All of which leaves the supporting cast and those aforementioned sight gags. Idris Elba‘s gruff British buffalo police chief leads a memorable character list including manic criminal weasels, yoga instructor elephants, business lemmings, flamboyant dancing tigers and molasses-like sloths (which have some of the best jokes in the film, making it a real shame that one of the trailers completely spoiled a whole slew of them). Zootopia is also relentless in its pop culture awareness, with an animal pun or sly wink in almost every frame. References range from classic nursery rhymes to The Godfather to Breaking Bad to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Disney’s own recent films and beyond. The movie is up there with Wreck-It Ralph in this regard, and is likely to reward repeat viewings as a result.

Wreck-It Ralph was good, Tangled and Big Hero 6 were great, and Frozen was excellent, but Zootopia just might be fighting for the title of the best movie of the current Disney crop. It’s not a clear-cut race by any means – such is the quality of the last half-decade of quality coming out of the revered studio – but certainly if you’re the type who groans at animated musicals or anything featuring superheroes, Zootopia may be more your speed. Regardless, I’d recommend it to just about anyone. It’s very good.

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THE VERDICT

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Good: Astonishingly good-looking, rich layers of homage and innuendo, believable characters, effective message
Bad: Stretches that message laboriously
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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