Critic’s Corner: Zootopia is Zoo-Pendous

We live in a society in which xenophobia reigns: Muslims, homosexuals, the trans* community and people of color are just a few examples of populations that are exploited by the media and politicians. A new movie presents a commentary on these issues and it isn’t some serious drama—it is a bright, wildly zany animated film about a world reminiscent of ours—but with animals. It’s “Zootopia” and despite the fact that it might deal with some pretty intense issues, you’ll be smiling all the way through.

Right away, as with most animated and kids movies, the audience is introduced to the theme of the movie: Anybody can do anything. Pretty easy, huh? This theme is mentioned almost too frequently, making it feel a little bit forced.

Luckily, this is my only qualm.

In the world of “Zootopia” animals exist in peace, though there is a sense of some divide between predators and prey. On one side you have all the ferocious tigers, bears and all the things with scary teeth; on the other are hamsters, cows, what have you.

Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny from the country who dreams of being a cop in the metropolis of Zootopia, a gargantuan city grounded in the same type of brilliant world-building audiences find in films like “The Lego Movie” and “Wreck-it Ralph.” Every detail from its unique “neighborhood” ecosystems ranging from frigid tundras to scorching deserts, to the little doors designed for mice and rodents is really a sight to behold as even the tiniest details are accounted for. Unfortunately for Judy, no bunny has ever been a police officer before, so she has to take some pretty big hops (pun intended) to achieve her dreams. When a city-wide mystery arises, she finds the perfect opportunity to prove to the world that anybody can truly
be anything.

In far too many ways, “Zootopia” is actually a better crafted movie than a significant portion of what audiences have become used to in Hollywood today. Superb character development and a sharp societal critique combined with a dollop of adult humor for the parents make it a treat for adults while the gorgeous animation and hilarious characters should be more than plenty to please the kids.

“Zootopia” makes several successful appeals to audience members not under the age of 10. The film features lengthy homages to “The Godfather” and “Breaking Bad,” as well as sneaky references to nudism, drugs and “bunny reproduction.” “Zootopia” is probably a whole lot more funny for adults than it is for kids as it hides little nuggets of smart dialogue and humor throughout.

Goodwin brings pep and determination to her character and smart screen writing infuses Judy with flaws and scars from her past, delivering a believable character arc. Her partner, the sly, smooth-talking fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) is the cool, assured counterpart to her zaniness. The two make a wonderful duo, giving each other the strength to fight for justice. Punctuating the film are some other notable voice actors including Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons and Octavia Spencer, all of whom are great but are often overshadowed by the sprawling story and the focus on the duo.

On top of critiquing our society for its penchant to perpetuate hate and fear, “Zootopia” also takes shots at contemporary American culture’s obsessive love of celebrities, apps and more. Don’t worry, it isn’t too harsh, but there will probably be something that strikes a chord with each viewer.

Is it sad that I find “Zootopia” to be better and smarter than many so-called serious movies? Probably. But it’s just another reminder that animated films might look childish, but are more often than not far superior to a vast majority of live-action movies. It probably won’t even cross the minds of a good portion of viewers that the movie is a pretty scathing critique of our society, but I guess that’s all part of the wonderful magic that “Zootopia” has to offer.

Scott Johnson may be reached at [email protected]