“Zootopia” is a darker, more serious take on the classic mismatched buddy cop movie. Make no mistake, this animated film earns its PG rating and may be a little too intense for some little ones. While I appreciate Disney trying to tackle some serious societal issues here, I’m sorry to report that the film, as a whole, fails miserably.
The story is a cut above most junk animated movies, but this crime caper lacks the sophistication of animal-centric cartoon classics like “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shaun the Sheep,”and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” First off, the animation is just plain ugly. The backgrounds feel incomplete and lacking in detail, and the color palette is completely ‘off’ (as if the animators argued about which color scheme to use throughout; check out the still photo above: see how the background is nothing more than browns muddled with other browns?). I love films where animals exist in their own world but I couldn’t enjoy the movie from the start because of the unsightly animation. Was most of the movie slapped together at the last minute? A good majority of “Zootopia” sure looks as if that’s the case.
Another big problem with the movie is the voice talent (Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate, Idris Elba); I found it to be irritating across the board. Grating voices coupled with ugly looking characters sank this movie for me. Perky bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is one of the most annoying animated characters in recent memory (yes, almost as bad as Bing Bong from “Inside Out“). I found no character to be lovable.
The funniest bits were spoiled in the film’s preview trailers. There is a particularly horrible groan-inducing scene with a mole as a Godfather-esque mobster. It’s so dreadfully dumb that I was squirming in my seat. I think the writers threw in too many “this one is for the grown-ups” pop culture references masquerading as jokes — yes, I “get” that the other two lab partner sheep are named Walter and Jesse but that’s not a joke, that’s a pop culture reference. Of course that line resulted in a few knowing chuckles from the adults in the audience but they were laughing because they recognized the reference, not because it was genuinely funny. In this film you’ll find many instances of this type of lazy writing and paltry attempts at humor.
“Zootopia” is not all bad. I did like the positive girl power, tolerance and anti-bullying messages — but get ready to get continually beaten over the head with them. The messages are good ones, but herein lies the major problem with the film: while the story is filled with the suggestion that all animals (read: humans) can live in harmony, it muddles its “can’t we all just get along” message by filling the movie with stereotypes of its own!
As a person who grew up in a very small rural town, it bothered me that the film presented the idea that country bumpkin animals are less sophisticated and tolerant than their big city counterparts. When our heroine bunny Judy Hopps is in her rustic natural habitat, all of the animals stay segregated and in their “rightful” place (in Judy’s case, she’s a bunny who lives and works with other bunnies on a carrot farm, selling carrots to other bunnies.) Of course the rabbits sometimes work with a token fox and mingle with some other animals, but let’s just say they’ve never had a polar bear as a customer. When Judy moves to the big city, she lives in harmony with all species of animals, from so many different habitats! Big city folks sure are more tolerant because wow, they live in the big city! What on Earth could simple country farmers know about tolerance and acceptance?
Another big stereotype portrayed in the film is the undeniably funny DMV scene where all of the verrrrry slow workers there are sloths. It’s funny, but it’s still a stereotype. Want more? How about the wolves who just can’t resist a group howl, the unnecessarily sexy pop star gazelle, or the weasel who is, well, “weasely”? Most distasteful is the overweight leopard who works at the police department. He is repeatedly shown doing silly, clumsy things and he’s always eating donuts. Let’s all point and laugh at the fat cat because all he likes to do is eat because he’s FAT! How on Earth is this contributing to a message of tolerance?
The last straw for me (and the reason behind my rating) is that the movie suggests that wild animals need to be tamed. That bothered me most of all. When predators are suddenly reverting to their biological wild nature and attacking prey, the Zootopia police department officers immediately want to figure out how to make it stop. Can’t animals just be wild? Why do they need to be tamed? Why can’t they live naturally?
Before you dismiss this as being “just a movie” or decide that my review is too serious or harsh, stop and consider how kids tend to soak up things like a sponge. “Zootopia” could have and should have done a much better job with its inventive premise and big ambition. I’m sure the film set out with good intentions but it ultimately sank into a divisive stereotype of its own.
Donald Trump would hate this movie. If you’re a Trump supporter, you will probably hate it, too.
Why? Because “Zootopia” is about acceptance. Acceptance of other races; acceptance of other cultures; acceptance of other personalities; and acceptance of people who are simply just different from you. It is also about the politics of xenophobia and fear of the “other,” and its central lesson is that we should not place labels on others based on how they look, what gender they are, or their cultural identity. Whereas Trump’s campaign is about using jingoistic nationalism based on fear of the “other” to separate us from other nations, cultures, and people, “Zootopia” is about tearing down those walls (literal and figurative) that divide us, respecting one another, and finding a way that we can all work and live together.
What surprised me about “Zootopia” aside from its high-minded messaging is that it wasn’t at all what I expected based on the previews. I thought I was going to see another mindless throwaway talking animal movie for kids layered with dumb not-so-subtle jokes to keep parents interested. There was some of that, to be sure, as well as annoying winking references to other Disney movies that were basically just audience laugh cues (hey, he just referenced “Frozen,” didya get it? Huh? Huh? Didya?), but I was surprised to find that this movie actually had a fairly interesting plot with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. For once, the movie wasn’t just about cute and fuzzy anthropomorphic animals doing cute things. The nature of the different animals – as well as the stereotypes that we all have about them – played an important role in actually driving the story.
Not everything about this movie is outstanding. As with many of these movies, some of the voice talent was great, and some was just stunt casting. I particularly liked Ginnifer Goodwin‘s protagonist rabbit, Judy Hopps, and Jason Bateman‘s fox Nick Wilde (his delivery is perfect for the character). Some of the other voices were just so-so. The animation was okay, not great. There are a few too many lazy allusions that were played out long ago (I mean come on, how many more times are we going to have to sit through heavily-borrowed references to “The Godfather?”).
Overall, though, I liked this film quite a bit. I liked the lesson about racial, cultural, and gender relations. I liked this movie’s more traditional Disney-esque “you can do anything you set your mind to” message. I liked the story. I want you and your kids to see this movie, particularly if you are one of the aforementioned Trump supporters.