We go to the movies to be entertained. That’s the bare-minimum bar that gets set when we plunk down our money and settle in at our local multiplexes for whatever recent release has managed to attract our attention with its marketing campaign. If that bar is met, we tend to leave satisfied, at the very least. But if the movie in question can also inspire us, or tug at our heartstrings, or perhaps even teach us a valuable lesson, then that movie can leave a far more permanent mark on our consciousnesses.
The animated features from Walt Disney Studios have more than often achieved those goals, and in recent years (specifically, since the company’s acquisition of Pixar and appointment of John Lasseter as the animation studios’ chief creative officer) have managed an impressive average of exceeding them. Disney’s latest output “Zootopia” triumphantly rides that wave and passes all of the above tests with flying colors.
However, one might say “Zootopia” is more of a sneak attack than the previous few Disney Studios releases, namely “Big Hero 6,” “Frozen,” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” Those movies were all great successes in their own ways, but with each of them you pretty much knew what you were getting for the price of admission. “Zootopia” is– THEMATIC SPOILER ALERT– a stealth fable about societal marginalization, and for that reason it’s a little ironic that the movie itself has been somewhat unfairly pigeonholed by its own ad campaign.
On its surface, “Zootopia” is being sold as a bright, sunny kids’ flick about funny talking animals. And while it does use those elements as the backdrop for a story about earnest bunny police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by “Once Upon a Time’s” chirpy Ginnifer Goodwin) adrift in the big city, the movie then gradually and seamlessly morphs into a noir-ish mystery thriller that has a lot to say about very adult-minded themes like racial profiling and the dangers of negative stereotypes. To call “Zootopia’s” release “timely” would be the understatement of the year.
Yes, “Zootopia” is a “message” movie. But it’s important to note that it’s a message movie where the message actually feels intrinsic and necessary to the story. It never comes across as preachy or forced, and above all it’s presented in an extremely charming and engrossing way, and for those reasons the– dare I say, important– moral pill goes down a lot easier.
Hopps is the very first rabbit officer on a police force headed by the surly Chief Bogo (“Thor’s” Idris Elba) and she’s unhappily stuck on a meter-maid assignment until a chance encounter with sly con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman of “Arrested Development” and “Horrible Bosses”) sends her down a dark, twisting path of criminal intrigue and dangerous encounters. From that point forward, Hopps and Wilde must find a way to reconcile their differences in order to uncover the true mastermind behind a devious plot that threatens to unravel the heart of Zootopia itself.
The movie isn’t all doom-and-gloom, however. “Zootopia” is definitely a comedy, and the jokes are plentiful, frequently consisting of goofy groaners and animal-related puns. It even ventures into pop-culture spoof here and there, with direct references to everything from “The Godfather” to Jim Henson’s “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” to “Breaking Bad,” and even in-house jabs at “Frozen” and a great gag about DVD piracy involving the upcoming release of “Moana.” Audiences drawn to “Zootopia” by the hilarious sloth-run DMV sequence featured in the trailer will not be disappointed.
It’s also worth mentioning that the environments of “Zootopia” are stars in their own right. The city is divided into subsections like Sahara Square, Tundra Town, and the Rainforest District, each more impressively designed than the last, and the attention to detail is indeed staggering. We can only hope that the movie is as successful as some of its forebears so Zootopia can eventually become a physical reality in theme-park attraction form.
So you’ve received fair warning: “Zootopia” is not quite what’s being advertised. But please don’t let that scare you away. Despite a handful of occasional frightening moments and the covertly mature subject matter alluded to above, the movie’s content remains appropriate for most families (in true Disney fashion) and it’s ultimately a supremely fun, twisty adventure story that will keep you guessing until the very end. I can honestly say it would be a real shame for anyone to miss out on it.