The best thing about Disney isn’t that it produces great animation films, it’s that it’s recently been producing great animation films despite the over-saturation of similar films in the modern age.
When Pixar was taken over by Disney a few years ago it briefly felt like Goliath killed David. Pixar’s films waned in quality and every subsequent Disney film has been better than the previous one. After Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, Zootopia arrives and just simply annihilates the competition. This is not only a super entertaining film featuring talking animals for kids, but also has deeply nuanced commentary for adults to appreciate.
Directed by Tangled co-director Byron Howard and Wreck it Ralph co-director Rich Moore, Zootopia is, surprisingly, a police procedural crime story which has a subtle sendoff to Polansky’s Chinatown. As the film’s title suggests, the world is inhabited by talking animals instead of humans, and Rabbit officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has been assigned a case to investigate the sudden disappearance of a dozen animals.
Helping her on the case is Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a foxy fox professional con-animal. Naturally Judy isn’t really thrilled about teaming up with Nick, but she has no other option, and she has just 48 hours to crack the case to make it big in her industry. The remainder of the plot is best left unsaid because what happens next is pretty darn unique and unconventional, and the experience of going into the film in the dark is the best.
The most astonishing aspect of the film is how it manages to exist as a film, rather than an animated film. And even though the animation is stunning, you’re never really watching a kids’ film. The detail in the frames is astonishing to say the least, and you’ll find yourself often staring at the movie, observing its little details.
In prior animation films talking animals are used as a cutesy element, but in this film there’s some genuine character dynamics, and a purpose of animals talking. The only downside of going this route is that some of the jokes would go over kids’ heads, and the pop culture references have been shoehorned into the narrative to balance out this problem.
But there’s a lot to take away from the film. Like every Disney movie there are life lessons for kids to learn, but the studio has now mastered the art of delivering these lessons in a fun manner instead of contrived ways. The film also renders themes of racial discrimination and police brutality, all with subtle charisma. It’s also quite fascinating how toned down the humor of the film is compared to other animation movies where the jokes are more powerful the louder they are. Even the slapstick in the film has a sophistication not seen in prior films.
The voice acting is terrific – Goodwin perfectly renders Judy’s frustration of wanting to impress other people, and it seems like Nick’s wiseass character was specially written for Bateman. Keen ears will spot the star studded voice cast of JK Simmons as the Lion Mayor), Shakira as a gazelle pop star, Alan Tudyk as a weasel, John DiMaggio as an elephant who owns an ice cream parlour and Idris Elba as the buffalo police chief.
What is most interesting is that after Star Wars and now Zootopia it looks like Disney is serious about strong female characters – it’s a good change after decades of rendering films about damsels in distress, where a prince has to come to save the little princess. If this movie weren’t in 3D, it would have been perfect, for now it’s just smashingly great.