Movie Review: Zootopia
By Ben Gruchow
March 8, 2016

Gotta collect them all!

The specifics of how and why may be getting a little faint in the cultural memory now - it has, after all, been about a decade - but Disney is, in a way, the new kid on the block again when it comes to feature animation. To put it more bluntly, and possibly more accurately, there was a time when you could liken them to a zombie on a treadmill: up and moving around, but few lights on and no real forward momentum. This was the era of Home on the Range, Brother Bear, Chicken Little, and (to a slightly lesser degree) Meet the Robinsons. These were creatively limp, servile feints toward relevance after the one-two punch of Atlantis and Treasure Planet, expensive flops that seemingly neutralized the department’s confidence and sense of self: young girls didn’t like them, young boys didn’t like them, parents didn’t like them. Nobody liked them. The only beacon of light was Pixar Animation, in partnership with Disney but very manifestly not run by them.

I bring up the history lesson because ever since 2010’s Tangled - which was the film that finally brought Walt Disney Feature Animation, having more or less wholly adopted CG as the only future for animated films, a veneer of artistic respectability - the product they’ve come out with has tended to notch a markedly different tone and demeanor than what came before. Tangled was a historical fable that was rife with anachronistic references and displays of behavior; it worked in practice, mostly, because the material was solid, but we were a long way from the formalism and earnestness of something like Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since then, their films have found their rhythm more easily, but they still have a tendency to jump around and generally act like the kid who throws absolutely everything at the wall in the quest to be liked and part of the in-crowd. The saving grace is that it’s a reasonably intelligent kid who more often than not has a good idea of what constitutes a good joke, but even well-built humor can get shallow and tiring if it’s deployed relentlessly enough.

Zootopia anchors itself in that other trait of Disney movies, one which has been around in its most basic form for decades: it’s a full-on Message Movie, and unlike some of the company’s other ventures in the recent past, which sort of skirted around what they were About, this film wears its observations about prejudice and its omnipresence even in what we like to think of as the best of us on its sleeve, and goes all-out and pretty much explicitly states its thematic conclusion in the final minutes. There’s a pretty mature line of thought about what our present self thinks of our past self, and how we can fight so hard to overcome our past self’s weaknesses that we end up either accidentally reinforcing them or creating whole new weaknesses.

As if that wasn’t enough to chew on, it expresses these things in the context of a film that is beautifully lit and staged and animated while never quite transcending or acquitting itself with the incongruity of most of its settings; as if that wasn’t enough, it explores the copious ideas running through its head in a scattershot, blunted way that’s shockingly unmodulated and shapeless for an animated film of this profile. There’s no beating around the bush here: At the screenplay level, Zootopia is really pretty slapdash and hesitant work, relying entirely too much on irritatingly superficial pop-culture references to cover the broad approaches of its scenes, while letting awkward statement of philosophy stand in for sincere expression and thoughtful exploration more often than is really par for the course at this point. To strike an entirely unfair comparison: this is Spot from The Good Dinosaur facing Arlo and talking straightforwardly about how important family is and what it means to him and how he misses them, versus that elegant and poignant picture drawn in the sand.

I have to hasten to mention that the issue here is with the construction and execution of the message on display, not the message itself. This is, like Frozen, a film where the point is worthy and important and it’s notable that it’s making such a prominent appearance in a film that’s nominally for children, and I like what’s being intimated while wishing by the end that the creative team had found an artful way to say it. In Zootopia, we’re in the company of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who lives in an anthropomorphic world where various animals live and work and travel mostly as humans do. Against the advice of everyone, she decides she wants to be a police officer when she grows up; against the beliefs of everyone, she enrolls in and excels at police academy, and soon she’s on her way to the metropolis of Zootopia and her first day at the precinct; meanwhile, we learn that the metropolis is split up into five zones, with shifts in weather and landscape so improbably sudden that the effect works more here as an elliptical nudge at Disney theme parks than anything else. Despite an initial consignment to parking duty, Judy is eventually placed on an investigative case involving a certain number of missing Zootopia citizens. She’s accompanied by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox, and Zootopia (setting and film) is otherwise fairly jam-packed with riffs on names, celebrity cameos, riffs on celebrities, and so on.

Calling them “riffs” may be giving them credit they don’t deserve; I mentioned superficial referentiality, and this is the type of film where a character named Duke Weaselton and voiced by Alan Tudyk echoes one of Tudyk’s lines as the Duke of Weaselton in Frozen…but not before Judy echoes it first. It’s silly and worthy of a chuckle, I guess, but you can’t really call it clever or smart or much good beyond that initial exposure. Still, it is at least silly and sort of funny at first, and we know how deep the basement for that sort of thing can go in an animated film.

And it doesn’t hurt our eyes, either; the movie really is well-animated, and I was particularly fond of the character design in strict technical and observational terms; the Disney look has generally employed a sharp attention to little detail in movement especially in animals, the beneficiary of an ethic that involves studying the habits and tics of live animals. The inhabitants of Zootopia look complete, which is the best way I can put it; each little movement and twitch and contraction looks and feels like the result of some natural character outgrowth or reaction.

This is all studied and academic thought, the analysis of Zootopia as a well-animated piece of work with a conviction in its storyline that I wholeheartedly approve of in a conceptual sense. That still leaves a whopper of an obstacle: in the moment, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the juxtaposition between the anthropomorphic animal population and a city that is for all intents and purposes like any human city, with human inventions designed for human limbs and human utilization. I didn’t like the laziness of the moment-to-moment approach of the humor, which too often verges on coy and self-satisfied. I didn’t like the depth of feeling being limited mostly to declarations of thought, without the contouring and modulation you find in the best character pieces. And in a film that’s about how self-deceiving we can be with our own assumptions and prejudices and preconceptions, I didn’t like that the movie’s ultimate antagonist is given no dimension or motivation beyond the basics of their plot goal. These are not the obstacles of inflated expectations; there’s enough that Zootopia does more or less right to make my comparative apathy toward the thing as a whole more significant, and attributable to very real character and storytelling flaws.