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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Zootropolis (aka Zootopia) movie review: creature feature

Zootropolis Zootopia green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Marvelous. A bouncy comedy mystery adventure parable in a fantasy world meticulously and cleverly conceived and gorgeously realized. I adore this movie.
I’m “biast” (pro): mostly loving Disney these days
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

One of the things I really loved about Madagascar was the unspoken metaphor about city living that underpinned it: that cities are civilizing. That cities are places that even out the differences between us and somehow allow us to coexist in relative harmony. I mean, look: Madagascar’s heroes were a lion and a zebra, predator and prey in the wild but best of friends within the cultivated confines of the urban jungle who wouldn’t even dream of cannibalism… until, pointedly and yet still only in passing, they are removed from the civilizing influence of city life.

And now someone has gone and made a story that is explicitly about that very notion, and again via animals. And Zootropolis (aka in some regions Zootopia) is marvelous, a bouncy comedy mystery adventure parable in a fantasy world that is meticulously and cleverly conceived and gorgeously realized via some of the loveliest and soaringest animation ever rendered. You will want to visit this place. (And I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity to do so: there is zero chance, certainly now that the movie is a huge hit globally, and deservedly so, that there will not be Zootopialands at Disney parks worldwide by 2020, just in time for the sequel. A sequel that you will welcome, not dread, because it means spending more time in this wonderful world.) It’s not often a movie even attempts to so casually and cheerfully jump across so many genres, and even less frequently that a movie succeeds as well as this one does. Directed and written (with a surprisingly long list of cowriters) by Byron Howard (Tangled, Bolt) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), with an assist from codirector Jared Bush (making his directorial debut), Zootropolis achieves utter and delightful perfection without breaking a sweat, it’s that serenely confident in itself.

Though the running themes of inclusion and diversity and tolerance are powerful, they never take obvious paths. In the city of Zootropolis (or, depending on in which country you see this movie, Zootopia), all manner of mammals, predator and prey alike, live together in relative bustling harmony. Which isn’t to say that bigotry, scaremongering, and fear-based politics aren’t still things here. Judy Hopps (the voice of Ginnifer Goodwin: Something Borrowed, Take Me Home Tonight) is a novelty, and not taken very seriously, as a new rookie police recruit at the ZPD not because she’s female but because she’s a bunny, the first of her kind on the force. Nick Wilde (the voice of Jason Bateman: The Gift, Horrible Bosses 2), the streetwise con artist who becomes her accidental partner as she investigates her first big case, isn’t subject to unpleasant preconceptions and police profiling because of the color of his skin (or, er, fur), but because he’s a fox (and there’s a barbed indication that his career as a petty criminal has been shaped by stereotyped expectations, not the other way around). Unlike in Madagascar, there are no humans here — perhaps they disappeared in a similar way to the humans of Disney’s Cars world, whatever that was — but we are here nevertheless. The discrimination and crude assumptions that Judy and Nick face may be based on simplistic impressions of their species and not of their gender or race, but the implied connections are inescapable. And yet they may be, perhaps paradoxically for their remove, more readily absorbed, because they don’t seem like a personal criticism of us as humans, of our own particular biases and bigotries. We can laugh with recognition and sympathy when Judy is dismissed as a “dumb bunny” and Nick denigrated as a “sly fox.” And because we are not clouded by our own bigotries, it’s easier to see through the silliness and hurtfulness of such slurs.

(This shrewd navigation of our prejudices makes the fact that the film features a comparatively rare female protagonist in Judy even more thrilling than it might otherwise be, because her character comes across as more truly universal — someone that boys and girls, men and women can identify with — than is, enragingly, often the case with mainstream films, which tend to depict girls and women as female, a subset of human, not as human, full stop. Though how well the film works on this level also makes the fact that there are very few nonwhite actors among the voice cast — Idris Elba (Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Gunman) as the police chief and Judy’s boss is the most prominent — a frustrating problem, and a missed opportunity, because depictions of nonwhite people could use a similar swing toward universality.)

It’s really easy to get stuck talking about how well Zootropolis deals with diversity not as a problem but a solution — look how well the city accommodates people of a far wider variety of shapes and sizes than among humans! — but that really is just a welcome artifact of the zingy ingenuity of the story it’s telling, one about people with varying inclinations and interests trying to plot a course for their lives through a society that fancies itself free and open, and is in many ways, but one that still has a few blinders on. (More shades of our human world.) There’s a chase sequence through a section of town called Little Rodentia, where everything is scaled to its mouse denizens, that is uproariously funny merely as a bit of unexpected and unusual slapstick, as a “giant” rabbit cop is horrified to find herself blundering about like a Japanese movie monster, and extra amusing in how it showcases the ordinariness with which all these people accept one another in spite of some literally enormous differences. The movie is crammed with stuff like this, which will tickle little kids and provoke adults at the same time — and it all works effortlessly on its multiple levels at the same time. Even the throwaway pop-culture references, of which there are many, play on more than one level, from the goodnatured swipes at the Disney ethos to my most favorite nod: how the name of our put-upon bunny heroine evokes Judy Hoffs, the black woman cop from 21 Jump Street (the 1990s TV show, not the recent movie), who also faced lots of prejudice from her fellow officers… and whose smarts and competence never got in the way of her kindness or generosity, either.

I adore this movie… and that’s not something I say very often. Even as a devout lover of film, it’s very easy to get very cynical about the state of our entertainment when we are awash in cookie-cutter garbage. But a movie like Zootropolis can restore your faith in The Movies. If you need that, here you go.

Oscars Best Animated Feature 2016

previous Best Animated Feature:
2015: Inside Out
next Best Animated Feature:
2017: ????

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Animated Features

green light 5 stars

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Zootropolis (aka Zootopia) (2016) | directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
US/Can release: Mar 04 2016
UK/Ire release: Mar 23 2016

MPAA: rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action
BBFC: rated PG (mild threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I’ve just been devouring the background art and information on this film. The story underwent major changes last year, turning it from Nick’s story in an anti-predator dystopia, to Judy’s story in a much more aspirational and subtle film.

  • Lennon Surcot

    It is a fantastic film! Both times I went out and watched it I left with a very uplifting feeling!

  • Nina

    I’d say that it’s certainly the most well-written Disney film. I’ve said it in numerous places, but I’d love to see it not revisited as a sequel, but instead as a TV series. I’d love to see the writers take inspiration from other real-life social issues for every episode. They could have an interspecies couple wishing to adopt a child as a nod to the controversy surrounding the adoption of children by gay couples. Or have a group of reptile or bird “migrants” being viewed with suspicion by the mammal citizens in Zootopia to address the refugee crisis. I think it’d also be really interesting to continue to examine Nick’s character. I could totally envision a scene in which he gives a gang of young foxes he meets in the city a bit of a hard time because they appear “suspicious”, and they in turn snap back at him for being a “sellout”, working for “the man” now, so to speak. He realizes that just because he has a success story to tell, prejudice against his species is not over by any means, and it’s something he struggles with. I’ve obviously thought way too much about this.

  • Hank Graham

    And you don’t even mention the tiger boy dancers! Seriously, what a film of riches.

  • amanohyo

    Lemming banker suicide rates are skyrocketing and no one knows why. Is it somehow linked to the unrealistic mammal image presented by celebrities like Gazelle? And is her mysterious Liger lover the illegitimate son of Mayor Lionheart? Pray for the predators this Wednesday night on a very powerful Law and Order: SVZoo.

    Joking aside, I agree that the world-building in this movie would be a shame to waste, your ideas are intriguing to me, and I… wish someone with clout would take a chance on a “serious” series like the one you describe. If it could maintain the balance of the film without sliding into the preachy, one-sided didacticism that characterizes a lot of children’s programming, it could really stand out and maybe even spur some honest debate.

    There’s something about anthropomorphic animals that really takes the edge off of discussing hot-button issues. Maybe if every political figure was replaced with an animated avatar in filmed interviews and debates people could more easily focus on the content of what they were saying. Mitch McConnell is like 90% there already.

  • Nina

    I think you mean “PAW and Order: SVZoo”, nah? ;)

    Your ideas have potential! They could do an episode about body image issues. How about this: one of Judy’s younger sisters laments that her body isn’t long and lithe like her idol Gazelle’s. But with Judy (and I guess Nick’s help too, because Nick’s great) help, she learns to appreciate her natural body and the things it allows her to do, like run really fast.

  • LA Julian

    Not to be pedantic, only in the interest of encouraging enthusiasm, but there are more minority VAs in it than Idris Elba – the rhino cop who tries to restrain Hopps is another black East Ender, Finnick, Mrs. Otterton, & the Academy instructor are African-American, the proprietor of the nudist resort and the yoga instructor are Asian-American (US & Canada), and the landlady (who is also co-head of Story) and Flash’s VA is also minority and an animator; the limo driver and the pop star are Venezuelan and Columbian-Lebanese respectively, abd Young Judy is Iranian. It’s close to 30%, which isn’t perfect but much better than most given the importance and/or non-stereotypical nature of theitlr roles.

  • LA Julian

    There was a gay interracial couple in it – the yobbos next door!

  • Nina

    Oh my gosh, that went right over my head! That’s pretty awesome.

  • Danielm80

    Huh? She never said that Idris Elba was the only minority actor in the film. She said he was the most prominent. That’s certainly true, and your examples prove it. Most of the non-white actors voiced really minor characters with limited screen time—though Tommy Chong’s scene was very funny. The roles may be non-stereotypical, but their “importance” is debatable.

  • Anne-Kari

    Oh thank goodness. Finally a ‘family’ film I can stand to watch with my daughter and my godsons. I suffered through so much crap in the last few years…

  • Those are all relatively minor characters, though. Most of the major characters are voiced by white actors.

  • Were they a couple, though, or just roommates? We don’t really get much info about them.

  • Bluejay

    I thought they were roommates too, but maybe that’s my unconscious bias showing. If they were male and female, I would have automatically read them as a bickering couple.

    Disney seems to be putting same-sex pairs onscreen and letting audiences read them how they will. When the store owner in Frozen waves to his family in the sauna, it’s clearly a bunch of kids with another adult man. We can always jump through mental hoops and say “we don’t have enough info, maybe he’s a brother,” but we would just automatically accept them as a married couple if they were a male-female pair.


  • It’s totally unambiguous that that couple in Frozen is a *couple.*

    I think we really don’t have enough info one way or the other with the two guys in Zootropolis.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I didn’t catch that; I chalked this up to extreme sexual dimorphism in cartoons, and figured the other big dude was the eldest son, and the largest woman in there was the wife.

    Totally on board with it being a couple though. :)

  • What woman? We hear two guys yelling, and then we see two guys walking together in the corridor. I didn’t see a woman with them.

  • Bluejay

    He’s talking about the family in Frozen, not the couple in Zootopia.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I meant in the sauna in Frozen.

  • Is there a woman there?

  • Jonathan Roth

    The one to the right of the sauna guy under his upraised arm. Again, that’s just what my brain tagged on the one time I watched the film.

  • Interesting. That person doesn’t look like a woman to me.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I just remembered this conversation. Thanks to repeated home video watchings, I’ve learned that the antelope couple next door are

    a) different species of antelope, judging by their horns.
    b) listed in the credits as “Bucky Oryx-Antlerson” and “Pronk Oryx-Antlerson”

  • The hyphenated names means they’re probably a couple!

  • Owen1120

    I don’t care at all about football, and today I was watching this on Netflix when I heard this: during the press conference scene where Judy accidentally sparks bigotry, a random voice in the background asks “Would you recommend a mandatory quarantine on all predators?” hmm.

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