Compared to Pixar’s double release of Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur last year, 2015 was a relatively uneventful period for Walt Disney Animation Studios. With 2014’s Big Hero 6 their last major release, and arguably still not quite recovered from the glorious hangover that 2013’s Frozen gave them, the studio have finally come out of hibernation with Zootropolis (or Zootopia, depending on where you live), a film that came out with surprisingly low key hype, in the United Kingdom, at least, and a therefore a film about which I knew very little.
Zootropolis tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the very first bunny to become a police officer in a universe where anthropomorphic animals are the norm and human beings don’t appear to exist. Small in stature but strong in conviction, Judy is derided by her commanding officer Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a big buffalo who sets her the seemingly impossible 48 hour task of finding an otter who has been missing for two weeks. With time and resources against her, Judy enlists the help of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a cunning red fox whom she had a confrontation with during her first day at work. The comedic stylings of the Disney studios move the caper style narrative along just as you would expect, with a whole host of quirky and entertaining characters to provide help and hindrance along the way, but besides from the customary stunning animation and interesting, vibrant world building, there is something about Zootropolis that makes it feel much more important that any of the recent studio releases. This ‘something’ is the overarching metaphor of the film’s plot, a message about different species living together harmoniously and not letting the actions of a few define the characterisation of the many. In what feels like an extraordinarily bold narrative choice for an animated children’s movie, the key construct of the plot revolves around the population of Zootropolis being comprised of 10% percent predator, 90% prey, and Hopps and Wilde uncover the sinister plan of a figure in power who is orchestrating a smear campaign to make the majority fearful and actively aggressive towards the unassuming minority. Sounds a little close to the bone given current events and a little deep for kids to handle, right? Well, whilst the full metaphor of the film’s message might go over the heads of some of its smallest viewers, a clear sense of embracing multiculturalism within society rings loud and clear and is portrayed in a number of innovative and creative stylistic ways that even a five year old can grasp. Whilst this message is an important and noble one to try to get across in such a picture, one can’t help but feel that in achieving a nuanced metaphor, the filmmakers have forgotten to really fine tune and perfect the fundamental elements of a truly great children’s animation. At times, the narrative feels somewhat messy, with too many new characters and side adventures taking precedent over the core premise, and once again, I have to question whether the intricacies of the plot that reveals the message of fighting against prejudice is too clever for its own good and it not particularly accessible to Disney’s target audience.
Though it really is the high quality, aesthetically pleasing animation that brings much of the character enjoyment, solid turns are given by all the voice stars involved. As the young, impressionable yet determined Judy Hopps, Ginnifer Goodwin brings a lot of honest heart to the role, and her refreshing tones possess the perfect combination of youth and spirit to make the character as believable as a young bunny cop can be! Jason Bateman as the smooth talking, game playing Nick Wilde is a great choice, as he possesses both the charismatic charm and swagger of a traditional ‘cunning fox’, yet retains that all important integrity and likability factor that helps us to see that he is more than what his species is traditionally deemed to be. Further supporting contributions are made by the likes of Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong and Shakira, all of whom help to add some colour to their characters, but with the bulk of the narrative relying on the audience’s connection with Judy and Nick, Goodwin and Bateman do a great job.
Overall, Zootropolis is a film that carries an important and timely message. From young Judy Hopps, a small female animal making it in a world of large male ones, to the dream of all the city’s citizens, no matter what ‘species’, living together in perfect harmony, there is a lot to be commended about the story telling. But equally, there are definitely areas that could have been made more user friendly for the core young viewership, and it certainly does feel in parts that Disney have forgone a lot of their traditional (but effective) crowd pleasing elements in order to lean a little more politically. Well intentioned and bravely ventured, but ultimately, dare I say, the whole thing felt a little too preachy?