With the 88th Annual Academy Awards out of the way, we can now start talking about the 89th Academy Awards. It’s only March, and generally films released prior to October are outside the attention span of the Academy nominators but I’m willing to bet that they’ll nominate ‘Zootopia’ for Best Animated Feature.
Disney, as a singular entity, disassociated from its Pixar and Studio Ghibli subsidiaries, hasn’t released anything this great in decades. ‘Zootopia’ is an instant classic – a movie many families will have as part of their video library.
I didn’t expect an animated movie about anthropomorphic animals that dress and behave like humans to be anywhere near my list of the best films of 2016. But here we are. I greatly admire movies that create their own world and the world of ‘Zootopia’ is truly something to marvel at. It is an all-animal world in which the creatures are relatively scaled to their real-life counterparts. Its districts range from rural Bunnyborrow to the opulent Sahara Square to the gelid Tundratown to the titular city, a bustling metropolis where predators and prey live together more or less harmoniously. The very idea of this world is fascinating and I’d like to see other movies set in this world.
The predators account for a very small proportion of the population, but they appear to be highly ranked in their selected field. For example, the chief of the Zootopia Police Department’s 1st Precinct is a cape buffalo named Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), and the Mayor of Zooptopia, Lionheart, is a – you guessed it –noble lion (J.K. Simmons). Are you noticing parallels between this world and the one we occupy?
Judy Hopps (a country bunny wonderfully voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) has long wanted to be the first bunny cop in Zootopia. Though her parents don’t exactly support her in this avenue, she fulfills her dream and is ready to make the world a better place! But, none of the officers seem excited to see her there. Chief Bogo assigns her to parking-ticket duty, and the rest of the cops investigate cases involving missing mammals.
While frenetically writing tickets, Judy comes across Nick Wilde (literally a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman). She ends up needing his help when Chief Bogo gives her 48 hours (movie reference!) to find Mr. Otterton, the missing husband to Mrs. Otterton (a river otter voiced by Octavia Spencer) and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to resign. Nick and Judy bicker like crazy early on, but slowly develop a friendship as they delve further into the missing mammal epidemic.
If this sounds like a bunny, I mean buddy-cop movie, that’s because it is, and its one of the very best examples of this subgenre. It’s also sweet, it’s funny, it’s action-packed, it has mystery and intrigue, it’s got moxie, it’s filled with positive messages – you name it, this movie’s got it.
Watching this movie unfold, I couldn’t help but think that this was some sort of a sharp metaphor for racism. It could have been didactic, preachy, and heavy-handed, but it’s none of those things – it is honest, and it forces us to acknowledge that we can all be a little racist, whether we choose to accept it or not. About two-thirds through the picture, there is a section where the characters are dealing with the ramifications of other animals’ prejudices – the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned because it is so truthful. I don’t think many viewers will feel as if they are being preached to, and the movie will incite many interesting conversations when it’s over.
The screenplay by Phil Johnston and co-director Jared Bush is fantastic – it has its share of silly, slapstick moments to keep the kids entertained, but it sparkles with sharp, savvy humour for adult audience members to relish. It’s a fast-moving story that only slows down when Judy and Nick make a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, operated by an all-sloth staff. We’ve all had personal experience with regulative incompetence and incapacity, so it’s largely satisfying to see this story take a break from its rapid-fire delivery to roll this sequence out sloowwwwly.
The animation and the world created within this picture are amazingly detailed and visually spectacular. All of it – the city of Zootopia, the miniature city populated by tiny rodents, the trains, the doorways, Judy hopping around to write up 200 tickets in a matter of hours – it just pops right off the screen vibrantly.
The voice work here is brilliant. Bateman and Goodwin have such great chemistry together – all the more impressive considering their readings had been recorded separately.
‘Zootopia’ finds the perfect balance between enlightenment and entertainment. I am amazed that an animated film had the courage to have us accept our inherent shortcomings and have us admit that we could do better. This is one of the best films of 2016. QED.