Zootropolis (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Bryon Howard & Rich Moore
Written by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons & Jenny Slate
Music: Michael Giacchino
Release Date: March 25th 2016
Despite the movie’s marketing campaign, ‘Zootropolis‘ (known as ‘Zootopia‘ outside of Europe due to copyright issues) isn’t dealing with an incredibly original concept; Anthropomorphic Animals. The tag-line “Like nothing you’ve seen be-fur” feels kinda illegitimate because we’ve been watching domesticated, civilised animals in animated form since animated movies even began, with Walt Disney Animation being the pioneer for this type of story-telling. However, where ‘Zootropolis‘ seems to stand-out is that it’s taking the variety of scales and sizes that come with the animal kingdom and fully realising it. What would the world look like if a city was co-inhabited by creatures as large as elephants and as small as mice?
Walt Disney Animation hope to portray this world as they enter something akin to a second renaissance after the success of ‘The Princess and the Frog‘, ‘Tangled‘, ‘Wreck-It-Ralph‘, ‘Frozen‘ and ‘Big Hero 6‘, especially since Disney’s acquisition of Pixar Animation has resulted in more collaboration between the once-rivals. We have the director of ‘Bolt‘ and ‘Tangled‘ with the director of ‘Wreck-It-Ralph‘ collaborating for ‘Zootropolis‘ but is this a wonderful union similar to that depicted in the movie between predator and prey or is this a strenuous relationship between cultures that is more-or-less like the actual world we live in?
Many years ago, in a world entirely comprised of mammals, predator and prey evolved to become civilised and co-exist in harmony. In this world, Judy Hopps (voiced by Goodwin), a rabbit from the countryside has been brought onto the police force in the city of Zootropolis thanks to an outreach programme. But being the first rabbit on the force results in her being relegated to parking duty. But when a disappearing predators case comes to the forefront, her Chief, Bogo (Elba) gives her 48 hours to solve the case and if she sales she must quit the force. To help, she blackmails con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Bateman) to help solve the case of the disappearing animals and prove her worth regardless of her species.
In terms of the story’s broad strokes, ‘Zootropolis‘ is working from a pretty well-worn template. The movie hits the exact beats and highs and lows you’d expect, the mystery-angle isn’t particularly compelling and many of the twists and turns can be seen coming from a mile away. However, what holds ‘Zootropolis‘ together is its terrific world-building and story-telling to introduce audiences to this unique world. Because while walking, talking animals is hardly new, seeing the mechanics of them co-existing and how the architecture of buildings and vehicles have to accommodate them is a sight to behold.
One of the stand-out sequences of the movie has Judy Hopps board a train to Zootropolis and she (and by proxy the audience) is given a tour of the animal haven as the train ride takes her through a polar district where the roads are replaced with small rivers and the animals ride ice blocks to get around and how next door is a savannah region and then there’s a jungle area full of tree huts and vines to swing on. These aren’t just different climates thrown together either, they feel like places that can be inhabited by domesticated, civilised animals and they feel cohesive yet distinct. On the aforementioned train journey, we see that there are different doors for different sized animals to walk through, we see drink vendors with pipes pointing upwards so they can serve much taller animals and rodents have their own micro cities and towns to live in, lest they get trampled on by bigger mammals.
But this isn’t just an inventive world that is the key showcase of ‘Zootropolis‘, but it’s also the themes it portrays about tolerance and acceptance of those that are different. It’s a very of-the-moment movie in a time of civil unrest, racism, Islamophobia etc. where people are afraid and turning on each other. Where a minority of a minority are causing tensions to run high and as a result, there’s a sense of paranoia and in Zootropolis it’s the relationship between prey and predator where it’s believed that the predators are starting to revert back to their primal urges which puts the innocent prey in danger.
At their worst later on in the movie, we get an incredibly familiar scenario play out where there’s violence at a peaceful protest and a sheep says to a cheetah “Go back to the jungle!”, to which the cheetah responds “I’m from the Savannah…”. While the obligatory 3rd act separation from our heroes Judy and Nick is as predictable as it is contrived, it’s hard to overlook that when we get a shot of parents trying to get their children as far away from an innocent predator on the public transport, an all-too common real-world parallel.
“Fear always works…” says one character towards the end of the movie.
But going back to the main relationship between Judy and Nick, it does start off in an expected way and hits the same beats you’d expect it to as they continue to one-up each other and try and trick the other into helping their own personal goals, but it’s in the finer details and in the social allegory where it finds its heart. Judy is an idealistic small-town bunny who has had a bad relationship with foxes in the past but she still gives Nick the benefit of the doubt during her first meeting only to have her prejudices justified which helps give the moral a bit more credence and shades of grey. However, when Nick’s backstory is ultimately revealed it goes even deeper into the type of impact being on the receiving end of those prejudices can have on someone. Because while the backstory itself isn’t breaking new ground, the way Nick responds to it and the lessons he learns from that feel wholly unique and incredibly mature.
And the relationship between Judy and Nick does feel credible thanks to some very entertaining and honest character-beats. These are two very appealing characters, the two play off each other really well and it’s refreshing that the two are allowed to be just work-partners and friends as opposed to a romantic couple. In fact, Judy Hopps doesn’t have any explicit interest in romance in the movie. Instead her goal is to be a real police officer and to make a difference. This makes it all the more enjoyable when she is given parking duty and decides to make the best of the situation before being worn down by citizens who are angry at all the tickets she has given out. Though why her boss, the cape buffalo Chief Bogo, insists that she resign should she not complete the missing mammals case in 48 hours is never quite explained even though he’s straight-up asked by Nick at one point.
A lot of the heart in the movie comes from the brilliant vocal performances with Ginnifer Goodwin able to imbue Judy with a do-gooder attitude without becoming grating, Jason Bateman is terrific as Nick demonstrating impeccable range and the rest of the cast do great work like Idris Elba, Jenny Slate and Nate Torrence. J.K. Simmons, Alan Tudyk and Octavia Spencer are good in their roles but they’re so minor that they feel like stunt-casting. Though the most blatantly pandering casting choice is Shakira who voices the gazelle pop-star…Gazelle. She performs a pop-song for the soundtrack and a montage early on in the movie, but then she gets shoe-horned into the movie later on and performs the exact same pop-song at the very end of the film. Most animated films get pop-songs made for commercial purposes but Shakira’s inclusion in ‘Zootropolis‘ comes across as exceptionally pandering.
The issue with ‘Zootropolis‘, however, is that while there is clearly a lot of imagination on display and it’s a thoughtfully designed world, we never actually get that good a look at it. Despite the train-ride early on giving the audience a brief insight to how this world operates, once that ride is over we’re stuck with generic looking buildings, streets, offices and vehicles. Obviously, the charm of the movie comes from seeing these civilised animals in domestic environments and using 2016 human technology (the Apple logo at the back of phones has been replaced by a carrot and iPads are called iPaws, for example) but when we see Arctic animals have their own unique form of transportation it feels inconsistent for those exact same animals to be driving around generic cars later on in the movie despite the audience SEEING that’s not how they normally get around.
To make up for stuff like that, we’re at least treated to a gorgeously animated movie with bright colours, varied animals that are brimming with personality and effective visual humour and slapstick. The sequence involving the sloths at the D.M.V. and how they seem to move in slow-motion compared to the rest of the world is such a hysterical comic set-piece and later on in the movie we even have something approaching a “Breaking Bad” parody. Despite anthropomorphic animals hardly being new, seeing this world portrayed with sizes in mind makes ‘Zootropolis‘ feel distinct and original. Musically, Michael Giacchino’s score doesn’t leave much of an impression, unfortunately.
‘Zootropolis‘ has flashes of true originality and ingenuity and its heart is earnestly in the right place in regards to holding a colourful mirror up to the audience when it comes to topical issues of prejudice, racism and acceptance. However, that makes the glaring un-originality of its mystery sub-plot and predictable character beats all the more noticeable and despite the racism over-tones making for compelling viewing, the directions the story takes in the 3rd act serve to undermine the real-world parallels in a way that does feel like a cop-out. Still, the end result is still a very enjoyable, funny and heartfelt animated film that is brimming with visual flourishes and engaging characters. Let’s just hope we get to see more of Zootropolis the next time audiences visit it.
I give ‘Zootropolis‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 5th May 16