Zootopia is the 55th feature-length animated Disney film, and it’s one of the best.
That’s not because its artistic qualities are better than its predecessors. Truthfully, technical developments in the modern animation age mean that most high-budget Hollywood productions look alarmingly similar to one another in character design and backgrounds. That means the stories and characterizations take on even greater importance; as beautiful and detailed as so many animated films look, they can quickly become tiresome for adults if they simply keep playing the same notes over and over again.
Since filmmaker and executive John Lasseter came over from Pixar to help steer the animation ship at Disney, the films have steadily ticked upward in the quality and depth of their stories, from Tangled to Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen to Big Hero 6. Now Zootopia continues that upward trajectory.
The story revolves around Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a young rabbit raised in the countryside. She has a strong sense of justice and so pursues a career in law enforcement, despite the lack of positive role models around her. Accepted at the police academy in Zootopia, she happily heads off, determined to overcome any obstacles that might arise.
Judy’s initial obstacle is that she’s so much smaller in size than her fellow students. Zootopia is a metropolis that is home to a huge variety of animals, who all talk and mostly walk on their hind legs. The city is a civilized place where carnivorous animals have curbed their natural desire to eat other animal. It’s a city where equality is still a goal, rather than a reality.
Judy, for example, is the first bunny in the police academy. Upon her graduation, she is dismayed to be assigned by her boss Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) to meter duty, though her buoyant spirit remains vibrant. On duty, she becomes acquainted with Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a fox with a wily disposition toward a crooked lifestyle. Eventually, she drafts him to help her solve the case of a missing animal.
The investigation plays out as the primary storyline, but the filmmakers are interested in much more than the solution to a mystery. The screenplay, credited to Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, and the direction by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, dives deep into the implications of the society that’s been created. Eventually, questions of discrimination between carnivorous and non-carnivorous creatures arise, with pointed references to modern human society.
The deeper layers of the film can easily be ignored, of course, because of the generally witty tone of the characters and the scenarios. Directors Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Moore (The Simpsons, Wreck-It Ralph) keep the pace brisk, while still allowing individual sequences to play out organically.
The greatest strength of Zootopia, however, is that depth. It’s a deep reservoir, available to be tapped, and it’s delivered with grace and sincerity into the heart of the movie, which lingers like the taste of fine wine.
The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 4.