The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Animal Kingdom

Walt Disney Studios
 108 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed byByron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush 
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman

Earlier this year, Hollywood insiders had already penciled in Pixar’s Finding Dory as the odd-on favorite to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, extending the studio’s lengthy string of successes in bringing home the trophy. But it took less than three months into 2016 for Dory, Nemo, and the gang to face some unexpectedly stiff competition from Pixar’s parent company and its own bevy of animated anthropomorphic animals.


Zootopia is the latest offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios, and it rivals the far more traditional Frozen for the title of the best animated film produced by the parent company this century. Like the best Pixar films, Zootopia is based on an easy-to-understand but hard-to-master premise, namely, a world in which seemingly all species of mammals work and play side by side, just like humans in the real world do. And, just like their human counterparts, the animals of Zootopia tend to pigeonhole and stereotype each other based on their species’ predominant character traits.


That state of affairs doesn’t sit too well with Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), an aptly named rabbit who doesn’t want to work on the family’s carrot farm but would rather join the police department. So, Judy goes off to the capital city (not surprisingly called Zootopia) and, thanks to the mammal inclusion program of Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), enrolls in the police academy. Despite having difficulty mastering the physical requirements of the job due to her size, Judy graduates with honors, but is dismayed to learn that he new boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has a dim view of smaller animals and assigns her to work as a meter maid.


Judy’s career as a meter maid meets with mixed success. On the positive side, she becomes a whiz at spotting and ticketing parking violators, but she also lets herself get taken in by a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Frustrated by her lack of success at the police department, Judy manages to get assigned an actual, albeit bottom-of-the-barrel missing person (or, more accurately, missing otter) case. With the blessing of Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a sheep, Judy starts sleuthing. Judy soon realizes that she needs some assistance from someone more streetwise than herself, so she finds Nick and pressures him into helping her work on the case.


 The mystery of the missing otter that Judy and Nick try to solve is far more complicated than it first seems, and Judy soon discovers that there’s a major conspiracy involved that’s engaging in some sinister goings on. I can’t really say too much more without giving away some of the more surprising plot developments in Zootopia, but the plotting is rather sophisticated for a Disney animated film. In fact, it’s rather sophisticated for any type of film nowadays, but, on the other hand, it never gets too complex for children to understand, at least on a general level.


Zootopia’s mystery plot bears some similarities to that of Chinatown, and the film also contains references to The Godfather (including a pint-sized Mr. Big who is far more successful than Mini-Me could ever hope to be). That’s not the only adult inside humor in Zootopia though; the film references and wordplay come fast and furious (no pun intended) here. All of this serves to keep the adults in the audience alert and frequently amused. Another welcome feature of the movie (at least for those in the audience old enough to drive) is a relative lack of the Three Stooges style slapstick that dominates so many animated films nowadays, especially 3D movies. Zootopia has action, but it’s more integral to the plot, as opposed to mere throwaway gotcha moments.


While adults will enjoy the frequent puns and gags in Zootopia, both young and old will love the bright flashy visuals, great soundtrack (including “Try Everything,” a surefire Oscar-nominee song with vocals by Shakira), and nonstop barrage of sight gags, most of which succeed. The filmmakers tried to actually create a city that would accommodate creatures ranging in size from mice to elephants and the bizarre architectural and stylistic contortions needed to accommodate every species are hilarious. This is a movie in which nearly every minute includes multiple throwaway gags, most presented merely in passing, as if they were completely natural. When Zootopia is finally released on video, viewers may wear out the pause button on their devices trying to take in every single joke.


Zootopia touches on some deeper social issues at well. At first, Judy’s efforts to succeed despite her size (and, although it’s not stated, her gender) seem like standard issue Disney messaging (“you can be anything you want to be”), but there’s additional subtext as well. Judy’s problems aren’t just a result of her size or her gender. Instead, she has to battle preconceptions that a rabbit just doesn’t have the toughness to be a cop. Similarly, the audience soon learns that Nick fell into a life of crime because everyone expected a fox to be a con artist instead of pursuing his original ambition, to be a scout. And Judy has to get past her initial fear and hatred of Nick that results from a bad childhood experience with another fox.


A large part of Judy’s antipathy towards Nick is the natural defense mechanism of herbivores when they find themselves in the vicinity of carnivores (Zootopia uses the terms “predator” and “prey” to describe them). The movie never really explains how or why predators and prey live in harmony without spending every waking minute trying to eat or avoid being eaten. But the instinctive nature of certain animal behavior does figure into the conspiracy storyline.


Zootopia tries to make the point that animals (and by extension those young humans watching the movie) can overcome stereotyping and even instinctual destructive behavior and become whatever they set out to be. And the film also shows the deleterious effects of such stereotyping (adults of course can make the connection between the behavior of the animals in Zootopia and human tendencies to make assumptions based on race and ethnicity). And, to its credit, the film does so without sermonizing or becoming strident.


However, Zootopia is to a certain extent hypocritical in its messaging. The movie says that it’s wrong to stereotype bunnies as cute and cuddly and foxes as devious. But it has no problem in taking advantage of the common conception of a sloth as exceedingly slow in order to have one work at the DMV and take forever to give Judy and Nick needed information (admittedly, that scene is one of the funniest in the movie). So a bit of a mixed message emerges here, namely, not to stereotype unless it’s funny to do so.


Zootopia’s mixed messaging may be the reason why the movie doesn’t resonate on an emotional level as much as the best Disney (and Pixar) animated films do. It’s a very well written movie, and Judy and Nick are likable characters who will probably net Disney a bundle in product sales, but they aren’t Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Nor is Zootopia the next Finding Nemo either. Still, Zootopia manages to take a clever concept and make it work for the entirety of a nearly two-hour movie without tiring or getting repetitive. Instead, Zootopia provides constant visual delights, colorfully drawn characters, lots of humor, and a good story. In other words, it’s just what you’d expect the Oscar-winning animated film to be. 

Read other reviews of Zootopia:


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