‘Zootopia’ instinctively balances a detective story with joyous animation
Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer
“Zootopia” (2016) – “One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” - Shannon L. Alder
“I don’t know when to quit.” – Judy Hopps
In the small town of Bunnyburrow, little Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) does not aspire to work with her 275 brothers and sisters on her folks’ carrot farm. She, instead, dreams of moving to the big city of Zootopia to become a police officer. The problem is – in this alternative universe in which animals have evolved and walk, talk, work, and live like humans – no bunny has ever been a police officer. It is simply unheard of, and Judy’s parents try to dissuade her by expressing that pursuing one’s dreams is a mistake, and there is no shame in settling.
Well, Judy might be small bunny, but she is very speedy, enterprising, intelligent, and determined, and about 15 minutes into the film, she arrives in Zootopia as the first bunny officer, amongst bigger and stronger elephant, rhino and hippo cops. Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush navigate the audience through this very likeable rabbit’s sometimes-thorny journey but also showcase the eye-opening world of Zootopia from a physical environment and also melting pot perspectives.
Judy owns a wondrous image of Zootopia inside her head, and the animators do not disappoint in painting this picture. From the thriving metropolis of Sahara Square to the nearby boroughs of snowy Tundratown and along the Cliffside forests, Zootopia provides a pleasing plethora of unique sights for the big screen, as 64 species of animals – big and small – dot the landscape as well. In this world, gerbils – who sport business suits - walk in unison out of a banking center, slow-moving sloths work at the department of motor vehicles and polar bears are the muscle for one particular mob boss. Like any city, Zootopia owns its share of problems, but the animals – prey and predators - live in general harmony.
The filmmakers do a very nice job of offering animated whimsy and laughs for the kids and adults alike. The animals may be evolved, but they still hold their highly amusing, natural and individual traits, and Judy’s big blue eyes, expressive ears and occasional thumping foot raise her cuteness factor to 11. Early in the story, she meets a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and Bateman is perfectly cast as a cynical street hustler, but for reasons which will not be mentioned in this review, they become partners to solve a mystery. Fourteen mammals have gone missing! Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) and Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) are baffled, but Judy and Nick try to crack the case as the narrative moves to an intriguing detective story.
At first, the police story seems a bit out of place for an animated picture. Producer Clark Spencer mentions in a recent Phoenix Film Festival interview that Disney has not scribed an animated mystery since 1986’s “The Great Mouse Detective”. My immediate concern was the film could miss opportunities to explore the visuals of this newly discovered world by instead focusing on small clues to satisfy the narrative. On the other hand, Howard, Moore and Bush introduce some entertaining characters along Judy and Nick’s crime-solving ways, as the film successfully plays a delicate balance between genuine belly laughs, empathy, a real rooting interest for the protagonists, and some high drama within the cops/criminals story. Plus, Judy is a police officer. She is not a doctor, writer or business person, so the twisting tale of attempting to catch the lawbreakers fits.
At the heart of “Zootopia”, however, are the two leads, Judy and Nick, and the story works because of their good cop/misguided fast-talker relationship. Ms. Hopps does not know when to quit, and here’s hoping that this bunny and fox team extend their cinematic stay in a future sequel. (3.5/4 stars)