Zootropolis Review – Thoughtful Neo-Noir from Disney Animation

I’m always surprised when a film seems to hit at just the right moment. That’s made even more impressive when animated films, with their multi-year production schedules, manage to anticipate the social environment three, four, five years down the line. But, Zootropolis (a.k.a. Zootopia, in other English-speaking markets), with its message of acceptance and multiculturalism, comes along at just the right time.

Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, who sets her sights on becoming the first bunny cop in this animal-only world’s big city, Zootropolis. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, Judy is handed her badge… and unceremoniously dumped with parking duty. However, a chance encounter with the fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) gives her a lead in the city’s biggest on-going mystery: that of the strange disappearance of fourteen mammals.

As Judy and Nick journey deeper into the city’s dark underbelly, the film takes an increasing number of cues from the film noir genre: think Chinatown, or Inherent Vice, to some extent. And, while the film doesn’t quite match those two films for their tricksy narratives, Zootropolis does get hindered somewhat by an overly elaborate crime narrative. It’s enjoyable, but seems like it would be rather hard work for younger audience members.

In keeping with the noir tales that inspired it, there aren’t all that many set pieces and the lack of action seems a risky proposition for a family film (not that it’s had any effect on the box office). There also aren’t really that many jokes. Yes, the DMV sloth scene is genius, but many will have seen that in the trailers, and beyond that, there’s a smattering of smiles, but few belly laughs.

Instead, the real shining light is the film’s vital social allegory. Just 10% of Zootropolis’ population are (non-meat eating) predators, yet a few cases of savagery leave the 90% fearing the minority. Ring any bells? Talk of biology and ancestry, of stereotypes and prejudice, of the repercussions of a society dominated by fear, is all handled with ease. Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the film’s two directors (alongside Jared Bush, in a co-directing role), take these huge, and desperately relevant, issues and present them in a way that is universally accessible and just so darn right.

On a surface level, the animation is suitably stunning. Not necessarily for the gorgeous landscapes of something like Kung Fu Panda, but more for the richness of the world-building: something Walt Disney Animation Studios are becoming increasingly adept at, what with this and last year’s Big Hero 6. That being said, I would have liked a bit more musical dynamism from the usually exceptional Michael Giacchino.

Narrative density aside, Zootropolisis a treat for the eyes and provides great fuel for the mind, both young and old.

★★★★

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