“Zootopia” is an achievement in world building – it feels as if you could walk out of the movie theater and book a trip to a land where giraffes drink acacia smoothies and an arctic shrew is the local mafia don.
But the most convincing details have nothing to do with the technical skills of the artists who created the latest solid Disney animated feature. There’s a lesson in the film about the relation between fear and prejudice that rings even more true in a volatile election year. If you want to teach your kids about true love and loyalty, watch “Frozen” again. If you want to start a conversation about Donald Trump, there may be no better place than “Zootopia.”
The film has small flaws, but it continues a strong run by Walt Disney Animation Studios, marked by movies that don’t resemble each other stylistically, but have complex emotional cores. “Big Hero 6” honestly dealt with loss and moving on. “Wreck-It Ralph” featured two characters working through isolation and depression. And “Zootopia” confronts intolerance and discrimination.
The story begins in a small carrot farm, where Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) wants to be a police officer. Much skepticism and mockery from family and neighbors ensues. But like the protagonist in “Ratatouille,” Hopps has an optimistic slogan to hang onto (“Anyone can be anything!”) and filmmakers who know the power of a good montage.
The more satisfying second and third acts feature Hopps in Zootropolis, a noirish urban center filled with animals big and small, and a dysfunctional government. When the long-standing truce between predators and prey starts breaking down, Hopps and small-time grifter Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a red fox, have to unravel the mystery.
Throughout “Zootopia,” each bustling frame is packed with so much repeated-viewings-rewarded imagery that the screen must be sampled rather than taken in as a whole. It’s not a surprise that one of the co-directors, Rich Moore, worked on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” which succeeded with similar styles.
There are sight gags aplenty, and one-liners that hit and miss. (This line directed at a sheep: “Do you think when she goes to sleep she counts herself?”) The filmmakers have a lot of fun with the size difference between the inhabitants of their world. Alan Tudyk as a weasel and Tiny Lister as a tough-talking smaller fox are among several well-cast voice actor/animal pairings.
But the rapid-fire humor is propelled by timing as much as joke-writing. A trip to the DMV filled with sloths, sadly spoiled in the “Zootopia” trailers, is a classic scene in animated comedy – built layer by layer and culminating with a perfect payoff. The makers of the latest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” sequels should watch the slow-building genius of the diminutive Zootropolis mob boss’s introduction, and feel shame.
Although the plot moves quickly – with some intense scenes that might frighten younger children – the narrative grows stagnant in the middle parts. The hand-wringing of Judy Hopps becomes very repetitive, and the inevitable conflict between Hopps and Wilde feels as forced as a bad sitcom misunderstanding. Maybe “Zootopia” needed another rewrite – or maybe it had a few too many. (Eight different people received a story credit on the film.)
The ending is excellent, with a race to end the discrimination between animals that seems almost eerily timed. The script of this movie was nailed down long before the 2016 election campaign started, so they couldn’t have known that using borders to deny entry of an entire religion might be part of someone’s winning platform.
And yet here we are, and here is “Zootopia.” Let the family discussion begin on the ride home.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba.
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Rating: PG (some thematic elements, rude humor and action) .