Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Zootopia" is a Winning New Fable

Disney animation has a long history with stories of anthropomorphized animals, from their "Robin Hood" starring a charming fox, to the old shorts featuring talking mice and ducks.  A CGI update on the concept doesn't feel overdue, exactly, with franchises like "Kung Fu Panda" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" still chugging along, but it has been a long while since one of these animal stories has really gone back to its roots in allegorical fable.  So "Zootopia" feels strangely novel in the way that  it is wholeheartedly a commentary on current social issues, specifically racial and gender bias.  It also deserves a lot of kudos for building its animal-inhabited universe from the ground up, thinking about how animals might really build a city for themselves.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is adamant from a young age about pursuing her dream to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, where mammals of all different stripes have learned to come together and live in harmony.  Since she's a pint-sized bunny, this is an uphill battle, but she succeeds in becoming ZPD's first rabbit officer and fights to prove herself to her highly skeptical Captain (Idris Elba).  At first she's stuck in parking enforcement, but then gets involved in a missing persons case.  Hopps blackmails a local con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) into helping her track down leads, and the two slowly but surely become friends.  The case takes the two of them all over the city, and eventually they uncover a sinister plot that threatens to destroy Zootopia's community as they know it.

The different types of animals are clearly meant to represent people of different races and social groups.  However, the clever thing is that they don't correlate exactly to groups in the real world.  Predatory animals are stereotyped as being more aggressive and dangerous, but they are also traditionally the ones in power, like the lion mayor (J.K. Simmons) and various members of the police force.  Hopps' assumed passivity as a bunny reads more as a gender stereotype than a racial one.  Then there's Wilde, the character who has been the most affected by prejudice.  He's a fox, so everyone assumes he's sneaky and up to no good.  So while "Zootopia" wears its intentions on its sleeve about being a message film, it rarely comes across as too pointed or having a particular agenda, because the worldbuilding of the film is so neatly self-contained.

That being said, it's a self-contained world that is very self-conscious about being relevant to modern audiences, and thus already feels oddly dated in a way that most Disney animated features aren't.  There are pop-culture references all over the place, including smart phone designs and a Shakira-voiced pop star gazelle.  Her new single, "Try Everything" is proudly positioned as the "Zootopia" anthem, even taking over the ending credits sequence for a remarkably lazy dance party finale.  It might have been more palatable if the song weren't so bland.  Oddly, the one bit of referential comedy that works best is an extended "Godfather" riff, proving that while spiffy technology may come and go, Marlon Brando impressions are forever.

Fortunately, the core buddy comedy of Hopps and Wilde is a solid one, backed up by good performances from Goodwin and Bateman.  They have great onscreen chemistry, play off each other wonderfully, and are strong enough to support the story when it gets into thorny territory discussing biases and prejudices.  These arguments play out so well, I wish the film could have spent more time on the particulars of predator-prey relations, and less on the familiar beats of chasing perps and surprise villain reveals.  Then again, the procedural elements are an awful lot of fun, especially in the sight-gag riddled society that's been tailored to animals.  From a pure design standpoint, this is one of the best Disney animated films I've seen in a long time.

I'm torn between wanting "Zootopia" to become a big franchise that explores more of its world in other films and television shows, and wanting it to stay a single film, undiluted and uncompromised.  I can't see the further adventures of Hopps and Wilde going anywhere but down in quality, but at the same time there aren't many animated films that have been so well suited to a continuation.  "Zootopia" is one of the only modern animated films where it feels like you could tell more good, meaningful stories with these characters.


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