“We may be evolved, but deep down we are still animals.”
Anthropomorphism, Disney and animation have a long history. As early as Walt Disney’s first feature film Snow White (1937), in which all the woodland creatures appeared to have various personality quirks, attributing human characteristics to cartoon animals has been a way of enhancing a story. Then, with numerous Disney classics, it became the way to tell a story. In 1995, with Toy Story, Pixar began to add to the Disney magic by giving characteristics along with pathos to the inanimate objects and animals. Now, in 2016, with Zootropolis (released nearly everywhere else as Zootopia) we see this enhanced to the max with an animated film that features anthropomorphism whilst also serving multiple layers about diversity and racism, all told by Disney with just a smidge of Pixar wit. It’s funny, sweet and far deeper than it first appears.
During a school play in front of her parents, her peers and their parents, a young bunny called Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) declares that when she grows up she wants to be a police officer. Many people laugh at her, one person even beats her up for the audacity of saying it and both her parents are a blend of supportive-but-unsure. But Judy proves them all wrong. She’s the first bunny first to enter the police academy and the first bunny to actually join the police force. Her first posting is Zootropolis, a nearby metropolitan city. Her parents can’t believe it and neither can her new boss, an African buffalo by the name of Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), who assigns her the role of parking duty. Day one on the job seems to be going well, until she is tricked by con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). However the two are soon forced to work together by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) and assistant-mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) to help solve a case involving a series of missing animals. Can what were once predator and prey ever work together, possibly even become friends, or is nature stronger that nurture?
It may be slightly too early to say, but Zootropolis has all the potential to be as-well regarded both critically and commercially as last year’s Inside Out. The jokes are really really funny and the drama is really really emotional. My personal favourite joke from the film has to be when fellow police officer Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) first meets Judy Hopps and calls her ‘cute’. Judy winces then carefully explains that “only a bunny can call another bunny cute”. Cue many belly laughs from the cinema screen. That gag is also an example of the kind of humour that has become prevalent in animation since Shrek (2001). The humour of these animations is almost two-layered. To explain on a very basic level, there’s the slapstick jokes for kids and the jokes for their parents that go way over their heads. It makes taking a child to the cinema a far more enjoyable experience for their parents, as opposed to having to endure some brain-dead-only-aimed-at-children romp.
The animals are very well characterised, both matching their animal types whilst also being well-rounded. Judy is fierce, dedicated and ambitious – a solid role model. Nick the fox is sly and alarmingly charming for a fox, though that may just be my personal feelings for Jason Batemen having an effect here… Idris Elba is hilarious as the imposing yet ultimately caring chief who just happens to be a buffalo. Shakira even appears as Zootropolis’ biggest star, Gazelle.
Then there’s the story itself, well-told with a solid twist. There are some fantastically inventive set pieces, be that the sloths working at the DMV or the practically word-for-word Godfather tribute. The story also has a lot you can sink your teeth into (sorry, pardon the pun!) Though the two groups of predator and prey may appear united in the metropolitan city of Zootropolis, it is a delicate union. One which is weighed down by tension and borderline-hostility. Although prey and predator may be neighbours very few are actually friends and few would choose even to be nice to each other. Some restaurants even refuse to serve certain types of customers. When it becomes clear that all the missing animals in the case are in fact predators it looks set to force the bubbling undercurrent of tension to the surface. The film is far from subtle in reflecting our own society’s tensions and forcing a degree of reassessment, yet that is no criticism. Considering the current global climate, with regards to refugees and a certain toupee-wearing president wanna-be whose delusions of grandeur reveal the current state of institutional racism, Zootropolis is perfectly-timed and well in need of watching.
This is ‘proper’ Disney with the beating heart and talking mouth of Pixar. Witty, warm and well worth seeing. A fable for 2016.