I can’t recall the first Disney film I ever watched, but I’m guessing it was an early classic, probably Cinderella or Alice in Wonderland. It made sense that I would be exposed to one of Walt Disney’s masterpieces first as opposed to the then-underwhelming crop of movies that were being released at the time-I was born in the midst of a second-rate era for Disney that preceded the so-called “Disney Renaissance” kicked off by The Little Mermaid in 1989. From there, Disney managed to knock the cinematic ball out of the park time and again with such blockbusters as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and more until the Movie Gods of Bad Quality reared their all-too familiar heads around the turn of the millennium, allowing animation powerhouse (and Disney partner) Pixar to continue in their rise in dominating the market and firmly establish themselves as the best-nay, only-ticket in town. And how could anyone argue-when the studio was putting out critical and commercial hits including The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up and the mighty Toy Story 3, it was in no way, shape or form worth denying that these people knew their craft like a well-watched VHS copy of Hulk Hogan’s so-bad-it’s-good 1991 effort Suburban Commando.
Unfortunately for the exceptional Pixar, those abovementioned Gods soon appeared on the horizon once more in the form of the disappointing Cars 2 and the substandard Brave, oddly coinciding with Disney’s release of the traditionally hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog in 2009 and Rapunzel re-telling Tangled in 2010. These fond tributes to the Disney films of old resonated greatly with die-hard Disney fanatics and helped to remind everyone of what Disney was still capable of producing, a feeling which carried over into 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, 2013’s smash Frozen and 2014’s baby-Avengers epic Big Hero 6.
Disney was back.
While Pixar continued to struggle with the audience-dividing Inside Out and momentous dud The Good Dinosaur in 2015, Disney took their time to place the finishing touches on their next release, Zootopia. Unfortunately, while Zootopia excels in major ways, it also falls flat on its anthropomorphic face just as many times, if not more.
The premise is simple, as well as a bit silly for a grown man to explain. Set in a world where animals act, dress and overall behave like humans, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a country rabbit who wants nothing more than to one day become a police officer, something no other rabbit has done before. Despite near-universal criticism from both friends and family members telling her she can’t possibly do it, Judy manages to prove those archetypal movie naysayers wrong and rise to the top of her class at the police academy, eventually being assigned to the Scary Big City Zootopia Police Department where she immediately encounters hostility from her boss, co-workers and everyone else who can’t believe a rabbit could be a cop. However, when a big case falls into her lap, she enlists the help of con artist/fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), who may be able to assist in her quest in addition to dispensing some good ol' fashioned life lessons along the way. As expected, things then progress forward in typical Disney fashion.
Where the film deviates drastically from typical Disney fashion is in the heavy overtones that kick in almost immediately. Sure, Zootopia isn’t shy in its tried-and-true message about breaking free from stereotypes and how you can do anything you set your mind to, but it goes unreasonably above and beyond that numerous times into the realm of social commentary that eerily echo some events our culture has unfortunately experienced recently. Persecution and fear are major themes running through Zootopia, which when combined with the aforesaid messages make for a film loaded with topics that will immediately fly over the heads of moviegoing youngsters and confuse the adults expecting an innocent movie about talking animals. Watching Zootopia, I became convinced this film could have-with no trouble-been made with a human cast. However, even if the resulting film were animated or live-action, this would have been a very different movie, probably somewhat depressing and genuinely sad. I think it’s fair to say that I expected far better from co-director Rich Moore, the man behind 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph (a personal favorite).
Any child expecting a hysterical comedy loaded with pratfalls or adult looking forward to the witty humor that has become a trademark of Disney films as of late may be disappointed to find that Zootopia’s joke factory exists only in the form of gags involving animals…doing things that humans do. This is a film that could have easily been bursting with excellent animal-human hilarity from start to finish, and while moments like that do in fact exist, the audience is mostly treated to scene after scene where the wit and funny stem from, say, a hamster wearing a suit. Or a tiger talking about finances. Or a sheep operating a computer. And that’s not even every scene-in between, the societal observations abound in ways that would make a 33-year old feel as if he were back in a lecture hall taking in another round of Psychology of Human Relations. That 33-year old is me.
Plus, if you happened to see the, “Sloth/DMV” trailer for Zootopia released last fall, you have now seen the best joke in the entire film, I’m sorry to say. This trailer is also a perfect definition of the word misleading-what is presented as a silly romp through the Disneyverse ends up being anything but.
That all said, Zootopia is not without some highlights. I couldn’t make mention of those earlier and not address them eventually.
When it comes to the technical side, Zootopia's soundtrack by the always-reliable Michael Giacchino may be perplexingly buried in the mix but at least the film boasts some of Disney’s best computer animation to date. The painstaking attention to detail in every scene produces a rich landscape and backgrounds I was convinced weren’t conceived in a graphics program but was simply high-definition video of, say, rainforests, snow or waterfalls, for example. The subtle features on the animals themselves produce a cast of characters that look great while still maintaining a badly-needed cartoonish innocence. These are the components I also took away from last fall’s The Good Dinosaur as the best parts of that film as well.
The voiceover work is also without complaint-while Bateman and Goodwin manage to pull some real emotion out of their characters, it’s always nice to hear Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons rounding out some of the supporting roles. Furthermore, any animated film that references Breaking Bad and Speed while poking fun at Frozen gets at least a small pat on the back.
I also must point out that, in China, Zootopia is known as Crazy Animal City. In all honesty, that may be one of the best things to come out of this movie.
Zootopia is currently enjoying critical acclaim and an impressive opening weekend, with all signs pointing to another runaway success for Disney. I’m sure I’m in the minority when it comes to my views of this film, and I wholly acknowledge it’s a children’s film at heart. However, my formative years still bubble just below the surface of my grizzled bones, therefore as someone acutely in touch with both my youth and adulthood one might think I’d see Zootopia as a film with a perfect balance of both. Disappointingly, I do not, and while I don’t yet view Disney as having yet slipped back into the Gulf of Mediocrity currently housing Pixar, I do see Zootopia as a glitch in the matrix that needs to be corrected, hopefully with the release later this year of the Polynesian princess film Moana. We shall see.
Hey, who am I to gripe? Let’s ask my four-year old daughter what she thought.