That has certainly been more elusive than you might be willing to admit. As the movies released under the Pixar brand have remained fairly consistent as smart and enjoyable yarns for multiple age groups, the Disney studio’s in-house products have languished in the recent years, usually as a consequence of inferior ideas (“Meet the Robinsons”) or pedestrian storytelling (“Tangled”). In rarer instances others will strike the right chord in niche audiences (“Big Hero 6” being a prime example) but will lose sight of crossover appeal, thus rendering them to marginal consideration as time goes on. What “Zootopia” does, much like its quality cousins, is broaden the focus to a more all-inclusive concept, and unlike the animal-oriented stories offered by Fox or Dreamworks it spends a great deal of time on thorough characterizations instead of elaborate action setups. One does not merely smile at the sight of a little female rabbit dressing up in police officer garb; we come to admire her audacity, squirm when she is caught in tricky predicaments and take solace in the fact that she finds a confident partner in her adventures – all because she is a personality rather than a prop for visual gimmicks.
Her name is Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), and in the early scenes she is a young adventurous tyke with big dreams of immense improbability: namely, joining the Zootopia police force, which has yet to include rabbits amongst its colorful lineup. But does that have as much to do with the stereotypes of rabbits as opposed to the reality of their physical limitations? Judy argues vehemently against the worrisome suspicions of her parents but is dead-set on her agenda, and when we flash to the following scenes of her accepting her badge at the police academy, it doesn’t concern her in the least that she stands among rhinos, cheetahs, elephants and bears as part of city law enforcement. Unfortunately, that confidence is not mirrored in enthusiasm by the chief of the bureau (voiced by Idris Elba), and when they all meet to discuss assignments, she is given traffic violations while everyone else is put on more glamorous cases involving missing citizens. How is a young bunny, indeed, supposed to prove her merits in a profession where no one gives her the chance to shine?
The plot is a formula loop of the same sensibilities that have driven a myriad of Disney movies in the last several decades: the protagonist (Judy) is destined to prove her abilities despite the ambivalence of others, and does so with the help of an unlikely buddy (a fox named Nick, voiced by Jason Bateman) while each of them learns to utilize their personal quirks to progress in polarizing social strata. The degree of the presentation has frequently changed, but rarely has it involved such lofty visual transformations; whereas a movie like “Frozen” applied the lessons in the skin of a traditional fairy tale, one is not likely to look at “Zootopia” and find much in the way of technical familiarity. The city itself is an expansive visual creation, containing various habitats and biomes that reflect the diverse nature of the animals (some arctic, others from the rainforest, etc.), and structures that occupy the protective necessities of their population (one section of the city is presented in miniature, after all, because it is home to mice). And because the story requires them to bounce between locales for the sake of the story, this gives the animators ample opportunity to explore these crevices with certain enthusiasm.
The screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, meanwhile, attempts to keep things interesting by turning Judy’s endeavors into a sleuthing case, which involves tracking down the whereabouts of a missing otter that may or may not have been abducted by a local crime lord. The leads to the unlikely pairing of her and a Fox (the Bateman character), who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her unfettered enthusiasm; she sees herself as nature in progress, and he has made a life out of perpetuating the stereotype that a fox must be cunning and manipulative. But the information he possesses is useful in cracking a case that has no apparent leads, and as they move deeper into the mystery, details come to light that add weight to the movie’s thesis; if it is, indeed, possible for predators and prey to live in some semblance of harmony, how is that balance meant to be maintained if it is possible for one’s core instincts to rise back to the surface?
For a good two-thirds of “Zootopia,” the filmmakers ponder these questions in an adventure that is amusing, charming, very ambitious and rather hysterical. But then the idea loses considerable steam in a third act that lacks the energy to find satisfying resolutions too many of the stakes it raises. There is a moment in which both Judy and Nick are strained by a proclamation she makes in a press conference that is particularly infuriating; not only is the delivery clichéd and predictable, but the ensuing resolution feels like a glaring cop-out. By the same token, the climax (involving key exchanges of information and some significant reveals) doesn’t amount to anything noteworthy other than just long stretches of dialogue. Where is the excitement, you might ask? That’s a good question; given that the finale takes place almost entirely in the vacant halls of a museum, one has to wonder why more wasn’t done with the concept – unless, of course, the budget ran out before anyone could write a more satisfying ending. All the same, “Zootopia” is the the kind of experience we continue to hope for in the recent era of feature animation, and though it doesn’t quite reach the summit of its aspirations, how refreshing it is to see one at all that takes the initiative to climb above the restrictions of the formula.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Mystery/Animated (US); 2016; Rated PG; Running Time: 108 Minutes
Ginnifer Goodwin: Judy Hopps
Jason Bateman: Nick Wilde
Idris Elba: Chief Bogo
Jenny Slate: Bellwether
Nate Torrence: Clauhauser
J.K. Simmons: Mayor Lionheart
Produced by Monica Lago-Kaytis, John Lasseter, Bran Simonsen and Clark Spencer; Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush; Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston