Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on an upswing since 2010’s Tangled, hitting the mark with Zootopia, their finest effort of the decade. Effortlessly blending vibrant animation, action, humor and pop culture, social commentary and pathos, Disney’s 55th animated feature is a treat for both kids and adults. Not only can the film be praised for top notch entertainment value, but educational value as well, for parents may find its timely message on the dangers of social and racial prejudice important talking points with their children.
The story may seem a deceptively simple one. Female rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of being the first woman police officer in the metropolis Zootopia, where animals live in harmony. Once there, she finds that life is not quite as she thought. She starts as a meter maid in the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD), but wanting to prove herself takes on the responsibility of solving a missing persons case. Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) gives her 48 hours to solve the case, but on one condition: if she fails, she must turn in her badge. With the help of sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), she plunges headfirst into the investigation, soon uncovering a plot which could rock Zootopia to its core.
The film's success lies in Disney’s ability to balance all the ideas that it sends. Some of the obstacles the film transcends are notions of identity. For example, foxes and rabbits are natural enemies—predator and prey—so they could never work together, right? This is just one example of how Disney examines stereotypes and subjects them to scrutiny. In fact, Officer Hopps and Nick Wilde have a wonderful chemistry.
Building off this, the film’s humor is spot on, tied into the astute social commentary it captures so well in its animal variations of human life; the sloth DMV scene which appeared in Zootopia’s trailer still holds up and remains a centerpiece of the story. At times, the pop culture references are a little too heavy-handed (see the extended references to The Godfather) or occasional noir aspects of the plot (a nod to Chinatown), but these are just icing on the cake, rather than detractors. As the story moves along, the humor sometimes gets replaced for plot-oriented action, but is reconciled toward the end by mixing genuine sentiment into the proceedings. Most of all, Disney draws characters from every avenue of life, brought to life by a stellar supporting voice cast, which the audience can genuinely care for.
Zootopia is Disney’s most ambitious film in recent memory and a return to form for the animation studio. Entertaining and thought provoking, the film succeeds on so many levels and earns the distinction as the first great film of 2016.
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Shakira
Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Written by: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston
Running time: 108 minutes