March 27, 2016

Zootopia (2016)

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first rabbit to be made a police officer in Zootopia, a sprawling city in which anthropomorphic animals of all species live together in comparative harmony. When a group of random citizens go missing, Judy decides to investigate - roping in a con artist fox (Jason Bateman) named Nick Wilde along the way.

Zootopia is the latest animated feature from the Walt Disney Animation Studios. WDAS has been on something of a winning streak in recent years, scoring great hits with the likes of Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and their pop culture juggernaut Frozen. Zootopia offers much of the same as recent non-musical efforts, with gorgeous animation and character design, quality voice acting and a storyline that has been worked over to within an inch of its life for optimum thematic resonance, foreshadowing and character development. To an extent it is very much more of the same, but as the company is running on such a creatively strong line of attack that is not a bad thing.

This is a beautifully realised film, with a lot of thought put into how so many different species of animals could co-exist in a functional and productive fashion. It's not just logical but also howlingly funny: Judy can be dwarfed by elephants and giraffes on one scene, and then towering over a neighbourhood of mice in the next. This sort of design work is the film's best asset, and the source of many of its strongest jokes.

Its twin leads are drawn in a fairly stereotypical fashion, but they look good and are well performed by Goodwin and Bateman. In all honesty the film's characterisation feels like a minor drawback: there are no real surprises here, just well-worn genre tropes dragged out and re-purposed for the nth all-ages animated film. The same can easily be said of the film's storyline as well, which is a fairly episodic detective story that moves from one character set to the next until enough plot elements have been collected to justify an ending. It all still works to a large extent - it is a funny and enjoyable movie - but at the back of my mind there is a sense that WDAS is beginning to run on diminishing returns. The idea of a hidden villain hiding in plain sight and getting revealed during the climax, for example, has cropped up in a few too many recent productions to be a surprise any more.

Zootopia brings a nicely expressed allegorical message about racism and cultural harmony, and it is refreshing to see it openly admit that such harmony is difficult and likely to remain imperfect. It's a slightly more adult sort of a message than you typically see in a family film. There are more than a few elements to the film that seem unexpectedly in contrast with its intended audience, including an animal meth lab replete with Breaking Bad references. It's the sort of pop culture referencing you usually see in a DreamWorks picture, and it seems a little out of place here.

This is the weird sort of film that is, on its own merits, perfectly well produced and entertaining, yet winds up being a slight disappointment because it feels as if it should have been somewhat better than it is. If you are a fan of Disney's output, this is a solid and commendable entry to the canon. If you are looking for an entertaining children's animation that will still entertain adults, certainly this one will suffice. If you're looking for an animated film to rival the better releases of recent years, to be honest Zootopia falls a little way short.

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