Zootopia / Zootropolis (2016)
Dirs: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush
‘Cute’ animals and energetic excitement for the kids, a timely and surprisingly complex allegory for the adults, with some deep mystery and touches of inventive brilliance, Disney has neatly lined this up to be crowned the best animated feature of the past year.
Optimistic bunny Judy Hopps fulfils her lifelong dream of becoming a cop in the city of Zootopia, quickly finding herself solving a mystery that threatens to destroy the utopic peace between predators and prey.
This film was released under different names in different territories. The original title of ‘Zootopia’ I think is a little smarter and makes a stronger point about the wonderful conditions the characters (especially Judy) believe they live in, so I’m going to stick with that for the rest of this review.
Writer and co-director Jared Bush is also one of the writers of ‘Moana’ which this has competed against at many awards, though both are Disney productions so it’s a win-win for them either way. Due to the allegorical nature of the story, I think this stands a very good chance of continuing to come out of awards victorious, more and more as world events make the message seem timely, an animated echo of what we’re likely to hear in acceptance speeches at the BAFTAs and Oscars in the next few weeks.
Playing with stereotypes throughout, the film at times uses some characteristics and expectations to comedic effect while taking others and working against them. Some critics have suggested that the film is muddled in conveying the morals and message, yet I’m not so sure it is. The way I see it, certain species and groups aren’t a direct analogue for one in human reality, it’s more aiming for a ‘general acceptance’ and ‘trusting people on their own merits’ idea, rather than these animals are equal to this specific social group or race. If you try to pick it apart as highlighting specifics it stops working as well, but just taking the overall theme as it’s presented works perfectly clearly.
There are moments of sheer brilliance, the filmmakers have incorporated a wonderful diversity of characters and environments. An early train journey gives us a glimpse of the 12 districts (nope this isn’t ‘The Hunger Games’) including jungle, tundra and rainforest, each one briefly impressing before we ever see the main city. We do get to explore some of these regions in more detail later but this quick journey is a stunning introduction to the depth and detail of the world, and was the point I settled in to the film and realised there was potential for something special here.
The story, beyond just the larger allegorical theme, actually works as a good mystery with all the twists it can handle. There’s some minor foreshadowing, yet a few big turns in the case keep it from ever being oversimplified or too obvious. It surprised me a little with how dramatic it turns at times, with a few moments of intense action and really building up the tension in some scenes.
There are tonnes of clever twists both in the story and the details of this animal world, too many things to list (or spoil for you) in the way of little creative ideas that have fun with the variety of species in the city. Much is made of the variation in sizes and scale appropriate for species, so for example there are different door sizes on trains, both brilliant when you think about logical practicality and wonderfully fun to see. There are an abundance of other details, shop names, posters, loads of bits in the background that you might have to pause to fully appreciate and I’m sure I’ll find more each time I watch the film.
Animals of different species behave in their own distinct ways, while they are all highly anthropomorphic there are clear traces of their real-life counterparts in the way they move and other traits. Judy literally hops and bounces much of the time, even doing a ‘Thumper-like’ foot tap when annoyed. On the other end of the scale are the sloths, one of the best gags in the film is centred on how long it takes to get things done when sloths work at the DMV. Some jokes play against the things we think we know, such as an elephant whose memory isn’t any good. Hand in hand with this there are some genius moments of dialogue. Most of this will go over children’s heads but for adults who notice it’s brilliant, even small lines such as ‘I may be a dumb bunny but we are good at multiplying’ had me chuckling.
There’s some really great voice casting, especially with leads Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman. Goodwin’s voice has all the excitement and optimism needed for her character who’s full of hope and enthusiasm about her new job, and this is well-paired with con-fox Nick Wilde voiced by Bateman who conveys confidence and wit that’s tinged at times with hints of sadness and genuine warmth. It’s hard to explain the nuances of their voices in words but they really do work for their respective characters.
In the other roles Idris Elba as buffalo police Chief Bogo is perfectly imposing (and nice to be in a law enforcement role after ‘Luther’), though it sounded like he was enunciating a little more than usual, maybe to closer fit the animated mouth movements exactly. There’s also a clever reference in the casting of a weasel voiced by Alan Tudyk called Duke Weaselton, pronounced exactly as objected to by his character in ‘Frozen’, the Duke of Weasleton. That’s not the only Disney nod, there are references especially to recent and soon-to-be released films such as a comments about ‘singing a little song… just let it go’ and a table covered in fake DVDs that are all plays on Disney titles. Other references that only adults will fully appreciate include an extended joke based on ‘The Godfather’ that should go over children’s heads as the dialogue at one point is almost word for word.
There’s plenty of scope for a return to this brilliantly created world, apparently the original ideas for the film were re-worked several times, so this final film bears very little resemblance in storyline to where it began. This would suggest that there are many ideas and elements that could be brought back and better developed to suit a sequel, which will almost certainly be planned (thankfully unlikely to be titled ‘2-Topia’ or ‘2-Tropolis’) as the international box office took over a billion dollars. With much more of the detailed city and districts to explore, a return to Zootopia has the potential to be very different visually, especially if the story is another complex one and moves into different issues, possibly something like inter-species romance!
‘Zootopia’ has been winning some of the animation awards already and is now looking more than likely to win ‘Best Animated Feature’ at this weekends BAFTAs, then probably repeat that success at the Oscars in a couple of weeks. It’s out on home media and VOD and a hugely enjoyable for all the family with more than enough to interest children and adults alike.