Many people weren’t quite expecting the depths and intrinsic social commentary within this film. Zootopia, Disney’s 55th animated film, stars a young, idealistic bunny named Judy Hopps who moves to the large-scaled city of Zootopia to become the world’s first (furst?) bunny police officer. She learns that’s not as easy as she thinks, getting caught up in a city-wided conspiracy with a con artist fox named Nick Wilde. The two of them form an endearing buddy-cop team that’s both exciting and endearing; critics cite 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon as a clear precedent, but it’s more evocative of Robin Hood by way of In the Heat of the Night.
Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and co-writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, bring life and vitality to a world of anthropomorphic animals that functions in a brilliant, detailed way. Sharp facial expressions and active body movements gives every walking, talking piece of fauna a real sense of place and personality, particular the various ways in which Judy both expresses and fails to express her emotional state. The world itself comes together in a way that’s never quite been expressed before in a film like this; the opening sequence in which Judy travels by train to Zootopia is one of the most emotionally and visually unique “newcomer heading into town” montages ever put to celluloid, with contrasting landscapes (forest, savannah, tundra) butted up against each other, yet logically designed by what seems to be incredibly advances in animal science.
There’s two clear ideas here that are working together (and, at times, against) each other here, outside of the talking animal concept. The first is the actual mystery at play, and the second is the interplay of the various species and species designation at work. There’s a basic kidnapping that needs to be investigated and solved (the basics of every procedural ever), and the social context that this mystery takes place in. For the most part the movie manages to balance both those elements with a relative deftness that even the most well-known films of that caliber manage to do. On the whole, though, the actual mystery, while solid, has a bit of a wonky, beat-by-beat formula to it: Nick and Judy find a clue, then there are shenanigans, then there’s another clue. It’s normal in the scheme of procedurals since the dawn of television time, but it would have been nice to see some sort of variation on those rhythms, or at the very least more in-world exploration through the clues themselves. An interview with an injured witness comes off flatter than it should, since it takes place in an empty, desolate region that, thirty minutes earlier, was brimming with life and energy. Never hearing from the injured party again is also a disservice, but then again, its part of the procedural MO. It fits.
The plotting of the central conspiracy also fits within the nature of “big twists” that has been part of the recent batch of Disney films, from Frozen to Wreck-It Ralph to Big Hero 6. In this case, however, the mystery and the twist are tied into the film’s trenchant, specific observations about the messy, complex relationships of the various species of its world. This is usually where fellow critics slip up, often trying to find one-to-one allegorical connections between species relationships and human-racial ones. It’s a metaphor that fails in that regard because Zootopia knows and understands the levels and layers through which is citizens must work through. It’s not just about predator vs. prey: it’s about the differences of species (fox vs. bunnies, lion vs. sheep, or lamb), of the nature of power structures (and the abuse/manipulations of which), of stereotypes, of nature vs. nurture, and of intrinsic abilities and acknowledging the full comprehension of a person, based on species, classification, gender, and class.
It’s on this point where the movie shines. The two short flashbacks define how Judy and Nick function in the present day with a direct, pointed nuance that even live-action, Award-winning films completely miss (I’m looking at you, Crash). Zootopia focuses on the bunny and fox’s relationship, particularly how their pasts inform their present, not just in the specific incidents that mark them for life, but in the implications of the dialogue and visuals around them. Avoiding spoilers, it’s important to pay specific attention to how certain characters around them react and respond to their circumstances, and then how it informs them in scenes within the present day.
Zootopia’s visual palette and sound design is gorgeous: bright, vibrant backgrounds and functional landscapes fill every frame, along with an enjoyable (if not particularly distinct) score and soundtrack that really adds to the film’s atmosphere (with all due respect to Shakira, her “Try Everything” song and Gazelle character feels forced in a way that only fits within the context of the film). It’s those tiny details – the horror-tinged Cliffside facility, the lived-in, worn-out government offices, the assortment of crowd actions in a final concert scene – that makes Zootopia feel alive and personable.
Zootopia isn’t perfect. The pacing for the first hour is a bit rushed and wonky, and there’s definitive narrative shortcuts that the film uses to get from one plot point to the next. But there’s a section of the film in the middle that’s pretty much perfect, an excellent set of scenes that exposes a broken, misguided vulnerability from both Nick and Judy that reflects the real world in a way that’s rarely seen on TV or film. It’s one of the strongest, most socially relevant lessons that works for both kids and adults, with just enough self-awareness to keep the broad strokes light and entertaining. The jokes go from silly physical pratfalls for the young ones to the solid, perfectly-timed gags that adults will catch immediately (or, better yet, on the second or third viewing). Yet it’s Judy and Nick, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman respectively, who keeps the world from spinning out of control. Life is messy, and Zootopia never suggests its an easy fix, but the attempt is not only worth the effort, it’s necessary.