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