It shouldn’t be too controversial of a statement (I hope) that Disney have been off their game for the last 20-odd years. The once groundbreaking studio arguably hasn’t produced a truly great animated film since 1994’s The Lion King, which itself, upon further consideration, was a bit of a step down from the prior quality of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It certainly didn’t help when Disney stopped producing two-dimensional animation in favour of 3D-animated films, following in the tracks of Pixar and Dreamworks and playing catch-up the whole time, but with Zootopia they’ve come nearer to matching that mark than ever before.
A young and headstrong rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) must fight past discrimination, with the help of sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), in order to achieve her goal of becoming a police officer and making the world a better place in Zootopia, which Wikipedia describes as a “3D computer-animated action buddy comedy-drama neo-noir adventure film.” It sounds awfully convoluted, but I found that perfectly described the variety of tones and genres the film doesn’t manage to balance so much as effectively blend. The mystery central to the plot plays out like a classical 50’s whodunnit, but the action and pacing throttle forward with high-octane adventure, fleshed out with witty comedy all the way through. The characters are almost all well-developed and easily lovable (if not particularly memorable), the chemistry between Judy and Nick being particularly engaging and a source of the film’s fun, but most importantly none of them are annoying. Nearly every aspect is just so charming and engaging and sucks you right in with delight.
Zootopia is beautifully rendered and astounding as I think back to what it achieved. For as much as I miss hand-drawn animation, I’m endlessly amazed at the crispness and level of detail the artists at 3D studios are able to create. The team here wanted to sell the city of Zootopia as a plausible realm and combed through every detail to make it believable. The visual introduction to the city is impeccable, showing the different accommodations for animals of various sizes, machines bursting snow into the sky in the tundra district, sprinklers at the tops of constructed trees moistening a rainforest sector, and more. The moves between districts had the same jarring transitional effect as travelling between zones in a game like World of Warcraft, but still I was at once immersed and on board with the filmmakers’ vision of an animal utopia. This is one of the smartest animations to come from Disney in quite a while, though it certainly doesn’t rewrite the book.
Beyond the impressive world-building on display, I found the film’s sense of humour to be its biggest source of charm. The writers could have settled for standard-issue animal puns, but instead they take a more playful approach and hit some unique notes with around 95-percent success and a great sense of timing, the DMV scene released ahead of the film as a trailer being one of the best examples of the intelligent humour on hand. “Playful” is probably the best way I can think to describe the mentality behind Zootopia. Even with the predictability of the proceedings and the occasional groaner of a joke, it feels as though the filmmakers were just having fun, and you’d have to be the biggest of Negative Nancies not to have a good time along with them.
That being said, for all the charm and delight, there’s still something mechanical and distant plaguing Zootopia. It feels less the product of an artist’s passion or vision and more of the Disney machine, which was confirmed for me when I saw there were no less than eight(!) story credits for the film on IMDb. It’s risk-free, seemingly focus-grouped and processed down to be universally palatable. While the film’s obvious theme of gender and racial inequality and discrimination ultimately doesn’t detract from the experience, it’s lack of subtlety gives it a feel of a simplified message for children rather than something moving or thought-provoking. For all the creativity coming from the people involved with making the film, the result still has the lingering stench of the unfeeling hands piecing together the final product to achieve the most profitable result rather than pushing artistic boundaries. This is what has continually separated Disney’s 3D animation attempts from the genius work of a studio like Pixar – nobody’s willing to try something new and put real heart and soul into it, leaving the finished product cold. For what it’s worth though, I still thoroughly enjoyed Zootopia, and it’s the first 3D animation from Disney that I’m eager to see again. And that, at the very least, is progress.