Review: Zootopia

“Zootopia” had already wowed critics and won near-universal praise by the time I took to my local theater for a screening. Waiting for the lights to dim, my fear was not that the film would not be good – it’s hard to argue the quality of the best reviewed film of the year - but that the film would fall victim to the sky-high expectations such overwhelming positivity inevitably creates. Within five minutes, any such reservations were blown to shreds. What a film this is: thoroughly funny, sincerely heartfelt, and most importantly, timely of message.

The stage is set (literally) when young Judy Hopps declares to classmates and parents gathered for a school play her big dream: she will be Zootopia's first bunny cop. Schoolyard bullies mock her and her parents urge her to take up the much safer family farm business, but Judy is undeterred. Fast forward; little Judy has beaten the odds and grown up to become Officer Hopps, but on her first assignment finds a new detractor in her boss, Chief Bogo, who relegates her to traffic duty. Bogo is relentlessly antagonistic of his newest recruit. Who needs a bunny cop?

Meanwhile, all is not well in Zootopia: predator citizens are disappearing. Some appear to be reverting to their old instincts - going "savage" - and attacking fellow Zootopians. The cases have gone cold and ZPD investigations abandoned. When a distraught wife comes begging for help only to be brushed off by Bogo, Judy strikes a deal with him: she can have two days to solve the case; if she fails, she resigns. Her chances are slim; her only lead is a clever fox named Nick. Water, meet oil.

"Never give up on your dreams" is a very Disney sort of lesson; the film could have stopped there, content to be a skin-deep success, but it doesn't. The relationship between Nick and Judy anchors the film's soul. Judy is immediately distrustful of Nick. Her parents raised her to be wary of foxes. Her childhood bully was a one. She wears fox repellent spray on her hip. You might expect Judy to learn the familiar lesson of "don't judge a book by its cover." You wouldn't be wrong, but "Zootopia" has something much bigger to say.

Zootopia is described as a city where all mammals live together in harmony, but do they? Parallels between Zootopia and our own society run deep. Judy's skeptical attitude towards Nick is one he has seen a hundred times before, a position I suspect more than a few in the audience will themselves identify with. Chief Bogo views Judy's hiring as political and not based on the merits of her abilities, a charge not dissimilar from some made about certain college admissions. There are others, but I don't want to spoil the impact of how they unfold. Suffice it to say that by reflecting current real world issues into this universe, "Zootopia" delivers a broadly powerful, never preachy lesson on tolerance and the danger of prejudice. Crucially, the film does not pass judgement; it invites reflection.

A big reason why this all works so well  is how incredibly likable Judy and Nick are. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman deliver winning performances, buoyed by superb animation that brings depth of expression to characters for whom it is equally important to know what they're thinking as what they're saying. Judy's can-do, chipper attitude is infectious. She says she wants to make the world a better place and we believe her. Nick is sly, smart, quick-witted, and a perfectly pessimistic foil to Judy's wide-eyed optimism. From the very beginning, you're rooting for them to see past their differences even as they root against each other. "Zootopia" earns every smile and each tug at the heart.

I've made it all sound very serious, but "Zootopia" delivers heaps of laughs alongside it's moving message. The details of society's anthropomorphic translation are nearly perfect and made the most of by a smart, razor sharp script. Zootopia is brilliantly realized and vibrantly animated. The train-ride introducing the city and its biome based districts is dazzling. It's all backed by a score that serves up nods to "The Godfather" and Adam West's "Batman," to 70's funk and 90's montage music. From top to bottom, "Zootopia" is a celebration of diversity

Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on a roll in the last decade, producing several films that I consider among not only my favorite animated films of all time but favorite films period. This is at least as good as the best of them. It might be better. "Zootopia" is consistently funny and wholesome in its appeal to be our best to each other. If I had kids, this is the kind of film I'd be rushing them to see.

Score: 5/5

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