With far too many movies these days, the trailers showcase the films’ best moments. After you’re enticed into the theater, though, the movie usually cannot live up to the hype. Not so with Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 55th animated feature, “Zootopia.” If you’ve seen the hilarious “Zootopia” trailer that features Judy Hopps, Nick Wilde and the slow-moving sloth employee at the DMV, you’ve seen just a slice of the comedy in store for you.
“Zootopia” is easily one of the most entertaining animated movies released recently. It offers — as clichÃ©d as it sounds — laughs for all ages, with the antics of a bunny and fox in a whodunit caper filled with pratfalls, slapstick and action comedy. But it also surprises adults with clever references to pop culture and film noir, as well as a few wry asides at even Disney, itself. And it offers important and timely messages about some serious real-world topics without a heavy handed delivery.
We are first introduced to Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a glass-is-half-full, larger-than-life personality who is not willing to settle for being a carrot farmer like her parents and 275 brothers and sisters. Instead, she aspires to become the first bunny police officer, a job usually reserved for the larger animal species in the idealistic community of Zootopia.
Parents can’t help but laugh when Judy’s father, who doesn’t want his little girl to move far away, says, “Ever wonder how we got so happy? We gave up on our dreams and settled.” And later, “It’s great to have dreams as long as you don’t believe in them too much.”
But Judy presses forward and moves to Zootopia, home to 64 different species who mostly play to type. In other words, she encounters a brave lion as the mayor, an industrious otter, a weasel selling bootleg videos, a graceful gazelle as a sultry singer and, of course, a sly fox as a con artist. Through a series of encounters, the fox, Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), becomes her friend and partner on a case that takes them into the underbelly of the mammal metropolis.
This story-within-a-story is where “Zooptopia” pays homage to film noir with a surprising mobster boss and allusions to classics such as “The Godfather” and “Chinatown.” Adults will appreciate those particular plot references, and even if most kids are too young to understand that humor, they will laugh at the face value of the mini story.
There are lots of clever animal jokes along the way: “Let’s address the elephant in the room” — and the elephant stands up; a bunny says “we’re good at multiplying” while doing math; and a character wonders if sheep count themselves. And who doesn’t appreciate the self-deprecating humor of Walt Disney Animations Studios when Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) says, “Do you think that this is some cartoon musical where your insipid dreams come true? Well, let it go.”
“Zootopia” uses the humor to explore themes of sexism, racism and bigotry in the society of anthropomorphic animals, which we clearly are to understand is a metaphor for humanity. We see this early on when Judy explains that she’s “not just some token bunny” and rebuffs a new acquaintance, stating that only a bunny can call another bunny “cute.” But Judy reveals herself to have some deeply ingrained prejudices, too, when she succumbs to her fear that all predator animals cannot escape their need to hunt their prey. Her flaw illustrates for audiences that tolerance cannot be taken for granted.
“Zootopia” is directed by Byron Howard (“Bolt,” “Tangled”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”) whose commitment to making the movie the best it can be visually is evident everywhere from the richly detailed sets to the subtle yet clever likenesses of the characters to their voice actors. As Moore pointed out in a recent interview, the concept of the detailed animal habitats was rooted in the illustrations of the Richard Scarry books of his childhood, but he wanted to make them more realistic. For example, animators spent more than a year researching animals so they could create separate and accurate types of fur for each of the 64 species. And Disney’s new Hyperion production-rendering software made the creation of the individual strands of fur and other characteristics much easier to design and preview.
“Zootopia” is a fast-paced, layered movie with elements that will appeal not just to children and Disney fans, but to parents and casual moviegoers, as well. Moreover, “Zootopia” leaves viewers of all ages with a collection of positive messages from a comedy-adventure movie that isn’t necessarily trying to lecture its audience. And Michael Ciacchino’s (“Inside Out”) film score and Shakira’s original song “Try Everything” add to the film’s upbeat energy.
“Zootopia” is rated PG for “for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.”
DISCLAIMER: I took part in a “Zootopia” press junket, during which I attended an advance screening of the movie, a party at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and round-table interviews with actors and filmmakers. Although coverage of the movie was expected, my opinions are completely my own.