Not only in Hollywood, but racial, class, and gender-specific prejudices have seen non-negligible societal issues spike in attention and coverage, leading to rising tensions and mean-spirited stereotyping and paranoia. It's in these times that the first of Disney's two major 2016 releases, Zootopia from Wreck it Ralph director Rich Moore, chimes in with an optimistic, but no less thoughtful commentary on these topics.
Ever since she was a child, the naive and cheery Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has wanted to be the first rabbit on the police force of Zootopia. Through her relentless ambition and unwavering determination, as well as a mammal inclusion movement initiated by the city's mayor, she achieves her dream, but because of her small size is relegated to car-meter duty. Eventually securing herself a position to investigate a case of several missing animals, she teams up with a slick con-artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to uncover the mystery of the kidnappings, and what ties them all together.
I often find myself in the minority opinion of those not enthusiastic over Moore's previous Wreck it Ralph, so I'm happy to say that his follow up is an improvement, and that's largely owed to it's spectacular lead characters. Judy Hopps is one of Disney's best recent protagonists. Defined (sometimes to a fault) by the self-acknowledged fact that she doesn't know when to call it quits, her determination is always so infectious and endearing to see, owed mainly to Ginnifer Goodwin's always energetic voiceover work. Though crippled by a sometimes naive worldview, it's nice to see the character grow more through her experience and resourcefulness, and grow to overcome her own deep-rooted prejudices.
This comes in the form of the unlikely team up with the film's real secret weapon, Jason Bateman as Nick Wilde. Often a thorn in Judy's side due to his condescension and slick hustling skills, his street-wise manipulation of an opportunity and sarcastic quips prove to be one of the film's most oddly charismatic qualities, with the character's tragic past shedding interesting light on his pessimism, and Bateman's completely invisible voicework perfectly accentuating the character's comedy. Separately the two are excellent, but it's when the duo is paired together that the film hits its most inspired marks, complementing the strengths and weaknesses of the other.
While Zootopia is certainly a family friendly feature, it's much to its credit that the film is surprisingly more mature then you'd initially give it credit for. While the concept of animals joining together to form a sophisticated society isn't brand new territory, Zootopia's thoughtful and layered execution of the environment, as well as the issues it comes with, are all excellent. As said before, issues concerning race, class, and gender are stirring controversy in the real world right now, and despite Zootopia's optimistic tone, it doesn't ignore or oversimplify these topics, tapping into everyday irrational fears and cruel stereotypes with surprising depth, and the importance of remaining open-minded. References ranging from violent protests, profiling, and even hard drug allegories that caught me way off guard are likely to fly over the heads of kids and confuse them, but with issues like this, it's important that kids should feel confused and more inquisitive about the world around them.
However, that's not to say Zootopia, ambitious as it is, always hits those marks quite as high. Despite the excellent execution of the societal prejudices, these topics are tidied up a bit too neatly once the film reaches its ending. In fact, the third act in general is quite problematic all in its own right. With the film largely revolving around a mystery subplot, this means that a big twist eventually rears its head in the last stretches, and while I was able to call it very early on, I can't be hard on the film for something that kids would likely find legitimately surprising. What I can be hard on is the fact that how the heroes eventually overtake the true villains feels overly dependent on nonsensical coincidence that doesn't hold up to scrutiny in hindsight. In fact, it's at this point that I feel like Disney has been running this twisty trend into the ground.
But those are not enough to ruin how much I thoroughly enjoyed the film, from its gorgeous animation (Honestly, the fur on these creatures look so real at times), to its ingenious world building. But the fact that it's such a beautifully animated film is all icing on the cake for what is, despite its shortcomings, one of the most clever films Disney has made in recent memory. Even if the third act requires tuning, the perfect leading double act and the quality messages make it too enjoyable to miss out on.
And now we play the waiting game until Moana...
****1/2 / *****