A political opportunist exploits her constituents’ fear of a small sub-section of the population —and their propensity for violence—to gain political power.
Sound familiar? It should. We’re knee deep in it in real life. But it may surprise you that it is also one of many plot points of the brilliant Zootopia, one of the best films, animated or not, I have ever seen.
It’s hard to give a proper synopsis of the film because there is a lot of film here. There is more plot, story, settings and characterizations found in this 98 minute film than you’d find in live-action films twice as long. All presented cleanly and clearly so it is easy to follow. But I’m going to try.
The film follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a small town girl with the big city dream of becoming the first rabbit on the Zootopia police force. Through hard work and determinations, she passes through the academy with flying colors, only to find a menial job as a meter maid awaiting her. A chance encounter with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a small time hustler who has a tenuous relationship with a missing persons case, gives her a chance to get a job with more responsibility. However, Hopps and Wilde soon find out that the disappearances are just the tip of the iceberg. The missing animals are just part of a larger conspiracy that might change Zootopia forever.
The first time you’ll notice that the film is a cut above the rest is when you notice the attention given to its world building. Other films would have housed its anthropomorphic characters in a thinly veiled version of New York City, with a Times Square filled with animal pun laden ads on its video screens. The film gives us a big city suited for animals. They have different zones with different climates which suit the different animals, such as the permanently frozen Tundratown, home to cold-weather animals such as Polar Bears, or the minuscule Little Rodentia, home to all the tiny, scurrying mammals that exist.
This is another difference from other anthropomorphic films is that all the animals share the same dimensions as their real world counterparts. In other worlds, mice are smaller than rabbits who are smaller than lions who are dwarfed by giraffes. This is put to good use when a parking ticket causes a mouse’s car to blow away or a hamster’s car becomes roller skates when stepped on by a larger character.
The plot itself might be formulaic–if you’ve seen a buddy film of a police procedural starring human beings you’ll know what you’re getting here–but it is a formula that you don’t often see in kid-friendly animated fare. It is a complex tale that trusts the kids, and their parents, to be able to catch up. They make it easy, as every Chekhov’s Gun is presented clearly and distinctly so you can recognize it when it appears later. But it shows ambition and a respect for its audience that the filmmakers have decided that not dumb down such a complex plot.
The complex story comes with a number of pervasive themes and morals, the two biggest being have faith in yourself and prejudice in any form is bad. These are morals that most would agree should be passed on to kids and both are presented in multi-faceted ways. Judy faces discrimination due to her size and her being a rabbit, but also must struggle with her prejudice against foxes, a bias handed down to her by her parents. The latter becomes as big an obstacle for her to overcome as it is getting respect in her job.
A friend asked me if the film was as funny as the “sloth trailer” that was released several months ago. I still think that segment is the funniest part of the film (and holds up well when seen in the context of the story). But the rest of the film does have a lot of funny moments as well. This includes both goofy, slapstick moments the kids will enjoy and throwaway gags based on The Godfather and Breaking Bad for the parents to pick up on.
Any voice cast that features Oscar winners J.K. Simmons and Octavia Spencer in what amounts to glorified cameos, Jason Bateman playing a sarcastic ne’er do well and Maurice LaMarche adding yet another character with a voice based on a legendary actor to his resume is a great voice cast. But this all-star gathering of actors, all perfectly cast for the roles they are portraying, raises the film to a new level. Note that Alan Tudyk plays “Duke Weaselton,” a play on his character from Frozen, the Duke of Weaselton. And Goodwin’s real life husband Josh Dallas plays a small role in the film as well.
The film currently has a 98% fresh over at Rotten Tomatoes, a lofty percentage few films, animated or not, reach. And its accolades are deserved. It is an outstanding film, one that not only should have the Best Animated Film Oscar locked up, but also in a perfect world be nominated for Best Picture as well. Go see this film.