ZOOTOPIA (8.5 out of 10) Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Shakira, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Alan Tudyk, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Raymond Persi, Katie Lowes, Jesse Corti, John DiMaggio. Rated PG for "some thematic elements, rude humor and action"; 108 minutes; In wide release March 4, 2016.
From the same folks who brought you Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph we get another gorgeously animated film that children can enjoy while also learning a lesson about being yourself, following your dreams, and dealing with prejudice-- even your own.
Zootopia is the story of Officer Judy Hopps (Goodwin), the first ever bunny on the police force of Zootopia-- a massive city made up of 12 distinct biome districts, from Sahara Square to Tundraland. While predator and prey live side by side, the animals often face prejudice about their species and what they're capable of, so Hopps finds herself relegated to meter maid duties while the rest of the alpha predators investigate a series of disappearances.
While setting records for writing the most tickets, she also makes frenemies with a con-man fox Nick Wilde (Bateman). It then literally turns into a children's version of 48 Hours as the mismatched pair have to race the clock to solve the mystery that might unravel the peace between predator and prey in Zootopia.
Goodwin and Bateman shine here in the lead roles, but the supporting cast are even more spectacular. Idris Elba plays the water buffalo police chief, JK Simmons and Jenny Slate the lion and lamb mayor and deputy mayor, Maurice Lamarche shows up as a mob boss named Mr. Big, Shakira is a gazelle who is Zootopia's top pop star, and Alan Tudyk makes a cameo as "Duke Weaselton"-- a clever Easter Egg reference to his other work in Frozen (We see what you did there, Disney).
There's also car chases, action sequences, and lots of fun as the film plays with its premise. But it's the serious side that really engages you as an adult.
Underneath all the gorgeous animation, this is a story (very much like Wreck-It Ralph) about breaking out of stereotypes. Except here it's both far more explicit and, yet, understated at the same time. Sexism, racism, and any other form of bigotry based on outward appearances could stand in for the prejudice animals face because of their species.
While some of these are played for laughs (the sloths in the DMV are a notable high point, as are the rodent mafia), the rather serious message is as timely for 2016 as it is classic: you can be whomever you want to be. Even better, it doesn't pull its punches and forces our main character Jenny Hopps to face some of her own prejudices about other animals.
If even our hero can have prejudices, maybe so do we?
This hopefully leads to introspection and understanding of the specific privilege each of us may have in our own society.
We also see how unscrupulous forces work to manipulate these prejudices to disrupt the social order and gain power. In a year when our presidential politics are playing out with a female frontrunner likely facing a despicable bigot, this feels incredibly prescient and very "now," a sharp contrast to most children's entertainment.
This works because while these themes are basic to children's stories, but somehow we in the adult world have all forgotten them. In a conversation with my 10-year old afterwards, she literally said to me "That's kind of like Donald Trump saying Mexicans and Muslims are dangerous." Yes. Yes it is.
But that's not the basic thrust of the film. Mostly it's just a fun story about animals living together and a fox and rabbit learning to overcome their differences. And a buddy cop story between the by-the-book up-and-comer and the con man forced to help out.
The maestro of all of these disparate elements are directors Byron Howard (director of Tangled) and Rich Moore (director of Wreck-It Ralph). We've previously talked with Rich Moore about his influences and history, and this is yet another feather in his cap.
If there's one complaint, it's that this isn't quite as good as Wreck-It Ralph or Tangled. But that's ok. Just because Help! isn't quite as good as Revolver doesn't mean you can't enjoy "Ticket to Ride". And even though Kung Fu Panda 3 isn't a bad movie, this is just miles ahead in terms of animation and story. This is the movie to go dump your kids in so you can go see Deadpool again. Or, go see it with then.
This is a movie children and parents will enjoy. It's funny, it's exciting, and underneath it all are some very serious issues if you want to wade into them.
Bravo again to Disney, who deliver another instant classic.
8.5 out of 10