Review: Zootopia (2016 movie)

This a Disney production, though the Pixar influence is obvious, both in terms of the excellent computer animation and Pixar’s approach to story development.

The setting is a world of intelligent mammals who generations ago did away with predators eating prey, at least if the prey are mammals. (There are still seafood restaurants, though I don’t recall seeing a chicken place.) The largest city is Zootopia, an immense metropolis divided into different environments — rainforest, arctic, desert, and so on — and the filmmakers clearly gave a lot of thought to how this might work, with meltwater from the arctic, for example, feeding sprinklers in the rainforest.

The protagonist is Judy Hopps, whose childhood dream growing up on a rural carrot farm in the hinterlands was to become the first bunny cop in Zootopia history, and she manages to do it, despite her size disadvantage.

(The 1980s television series 21 Jump Street had a police officer named Judy Hoffs who likewise faced prejudice, but one of Zootopia’s three directors, Byron Howard, called it just “a hilarious but amazing coincidence.”)

Unlike a lot of animation, this film depicts animals with pretty much the size relationships of the real world. Hence Judy is tiny in comparison with an elephant or the cape buffalo police chief she reports to, but still much bigger than a mouse.

As a child Judy was bullied by a young fox and is a bit afraid of them, but when she encounters a petty criminal fox she overcomes her nervousness to figure out a way to take advantage of his street smarts to investigate a missing person case.

Their investigation at one point requires a visit to the DMV, where all the employees are sloths. The sloth Judy interacts with (with gags swiped from Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America” sketch) is voiced by Kristen Bell in a bit of a dream role for her, since she happens to be obsessed with sloths.

Seriously, check out the YouTube clip of her appearance on Ellen. Her boyfriend Dax Shepard discovered her sloth fixation when she kept watching sloth documentaries over and over in bed, so for her 31st birthday he contacted a Hollywood animal service and arranged to have a sloth attend her party as a surprise. That afternoon when he told her to go into the bedroom and take the dogs she quickly figured out what was going on and was so moved that when he went to get her (carrying a video camera hoping to capture what he expected to be her happy surprise when she saw the sloth) he found her sobbing uncontrollably. It’s both touching and hilarious.

Besides developing into a pretty decent mystery, the film has some interesting things to say about prejudice, and not just prejudice against the idea of a bunny as a police officer. Predators are a small minority of species in Zootopia as in the real world, and the prey species remain suspicious of them. It’s hard to dismiss that prejudice as irrational, but it’s still unfair.

This is not, however, a heavy-handed Message that takes over the film. The serious points being made don’t at all keep Zootopia from being a really entertaining movie.


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