Hollywood studios aren’t stupid. They know that during elementary schools’ Easter break, parents all over America are looking for ways to keep the kids busy. So this is always a good time of year to check out the current state of family-friendly filmmaking. Some years we get lucky, and a tentpole kids’ movie drops that would be worth seeing anytime, at any age. This year, with the release of Walt Disney Animated Classics’ Zootopia, is one of them.
That’s right: While taking some kids along to see it would definitely be a fine idea, I heartily recommend catching Zootopia even if you don’t have any youngsters available to hijack. This is an animated film with brains as well as heart and eye-popping visuals. It’s a rare example of a “family film” that truly does have something to offer audiences of all ages. But what you get out of it and what your kids get out of it won’t be entirely the same something.
What directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston bring to the screen here is a story that works on many levels, examining, busting and transcending a whole lot of kid-movie conventions and other cinematic tropes. Its base level is the inspirational “You can do anything if you put your mind to it” theme so common in wholesome family fare. That’s the attitude that gets our ebullient heroine, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), off the carrot farm and into the big city to pursue her dream to become a policewoman and “make the world a better place.”
But that city, called Zootopia on account of its history as a place where prey and predator species learned to coexist, gives Judy a smackdown in a hurry. Though she graduated police academy at the top of her class, the Zootopia Police Department’s Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has never hired a rabbit before (and rarely a female of any species), so he won’t assign Judy anything more perilous than meter-maid duty. Determined to prove her ability, Judy intervenes in a robbery that soon leads her into a sinister missing-animal investigation – unauthorized at first, but then sanctioned once Chief Bogo and Mayor Lionheart (J. K. Simmons) get caught failing to adhere to their own window-dressing affirmative action campaign.
That’s where Zootopia seriously starts to take on added dimensions that reflect the differences between the ideal America – the level-playing-field melting pot with liberty, justice and equal opportunity for all – and the real America, where racism and sexism are still well-entrenched and the economy is relentlessly stacked against upward mobility. In Zootopia, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, and a rabbit can’t outhop the glass ceiling no matter how determined she is.
Moreover, though the city views itself as a model of interspecies harmony and futuristic urban habitat design, it is ghettoized both literally and figuratively. Speciesism is officially frowned-upon, but employment opportunities are strictly compartmentalized according to perceived group strengths and weaknesses. There’s plenty of satire about civil-service bureaucracy; old-timers who remember the days when one had to take a whole day off from work to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles will get a special kick out of the DMV staffed entirely by sloths. Private business-owners in Zootopia can get away with open discrimination, and it’s in trying to help out a fox who’s being refused service at an elephant-run ice cream parlor that the beleaguered Judy meets her key informant and eventual investigating partner, the scurrilous, streetwise con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
Kids, even little ones, have a well-developed sense of the concept of fairness, and the movie’s basic message of thwarted justice is one that will get through without them having to comprehend its more nuanced macrocosmic themes about the failed promise of the American Dream. But grownups will find plenty of food for thought in Zootopia, especially in the present context of certain xenophobic messages being hawked with frightening success by certain presidential candidates. Adults will also enjoy its many allusions to other movies, like a shrew Godfather (Maurice LaMarche) named Mr. Big, and its overall LA-detective-thriller atmosphere. It’s without a doubt the most vibrantly colored film noir ever shot.
The dialogue is sassy and funny, though many of the best jokes do come at the expense of speciesist stereotypes (lemmings and sheep are easily scammed by prodding just one in a particular direction, wolves easily distracted by getting just one to start howling). Others will go way over kids’ heads, treading lightly along the queasy tightrope of well-meaning, unintentional racism: At one point the heroine patronizingly compliments a down-and-out carnivore for being “articulate,” for example; at another, the fox craves a chance to fondle a sheep’s wooly topknot. The film’s social messages are profound and elegantly delivered, never bogging down in heavy-handed “Political Correctness.”
Zootopia’s state-of-the-art animation looks great, with every hair of an animal’s coat conveying lifelike texture. And Michael Giacchino’s bouncy, Third-Worldy score adds a lot to the movie’s pleasure quotient; I’m predicting right now that Shakira’s song “Try Everything” has already nailed down the 2016 Best Song Oscar. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this movie cops the Best Animated Feature prize. Go see it!