Movie Review: Zootopia
By Ben Gruchow
March 8, 2016
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.