Some films ambitions just are out of reach of their grasp. This animated offering from Disney Studios has a lot going for it, including an excellent cast, an interesting setting and some of the cutest characters you can imagine. It also has pretensions of seriousness that it just doesn’t reach at times. The movie is by no stretch of the imagination a failure, but it is so obvious to see the themes and goals of the film makers and it is equally obvious that they strike out a few times. However, for every time there is something just a bit big for the movie, there are moments that make it all worth a trip, even if it is not destined to become a modern classic.
The movie starts as a light hearted story of a can do character in a world where animals all seemingly get along, but under the surface, they face the kinds of barriers that we humans do, small minded prejudice. Allegory 101, Zootopia is “Animal Farm” with jokes. The heavy handed examples of prejudice and stereotyping are likely to go over the heads of the kids watching the movie, but hit their parents and other adults watching right in the forehead. Subtlety goes out the window at times and halfway through the movie, the story gets dark and heavy. Kids will probably lose patience with it and the adults will wonder where the fun went. Just when you despair however, there is a moment that pulls us back into the spirit of things and makes us root for the film still.
Since I am generally a positive person with movies, I’ll give you a few things to look at and like about the movie. It is beautifully made with a nice design for different ecosystems in the city and cleverly visualized jokes. There is a fun chase sequence through a rodent style section of the city where our main hero, Officer Judy Hopps, a bunny, chases a perp through miniature buildings and a tiny subway and some habitrals that are complex and fun to imagine as a city for hamsters, mice and other such critters. You have probably seen the joke about the DMV in the trailer and it works even though we got it months ago in the preview. For a movie that is trying to move us away from our prejudices, it makes a lot of use of what would be “ethnic” humor if the characters were human. There are elephant jokes and wolf jokes that all hit the mark when it comes to making us laugh, but if you replaced those characters with an ethnic stereotype, the special interest groups would be howling.
This is a buddy cop film with animals. Think “48 Hours”, only the Nick Nolte character is a naive rookie instead of a veteran burnout. Reggie Hammond is named Nick and he’s a fox. Together the two are going to solve a mystery. The good thing is these characters are terrific. Judy, the rookie bunny police officer, is a cute as can be. Ginnifer Goodwin voices the character as determined but vulnerable and the artists who visualized the character make her exactly that, with huge expressive eyes and long ears with big rabbit feet. Her “partner” jokes at one point that the the toy store has reported one of their stuffed dolls animals is missing. She may not be a Princess, but the character is marketable as all heck. I expect to see her front and center in the toy aisle at Target. Nick is voiced by Jason Bateman who seems to be the sardonic voice for parts not already taken by Bill Murray. He is a little disheveled, and slick, which is precisely the way he needs to be played. The un-tucked shirt, the sunglasses and the attitude are not Eddie Murphy stylish, but more John Candy clever. When we are focused on these two characters, the movie works. When we get to the procedural and the conspiracy plot, it just falls down a little.
Maybe this film will work better for a different audience. Some of the contemporary visuals like the apps used by some of Judy’s fellow cops or the diva like concert performance with dancing tigers just seem too much of the now. It may not hold up over the years and the humor needs to be a little more universal. Fortunately, every time you get a joke based on a contemporary reference (including a “Frozen” line) there is another animal pun about wolves in sheep’s clothing or the elephant in the room to make it more sustainable. I wanted it to be more effective, and while I can’t always say why it was not, I can say that half of a good movie is better than a bad movie, any day of the week.