Sunday, March 6, 2016

#AnimalLivesMatter: “Zootopia” a smart, wise, funny joy

Zootopia (2016)
108 min., rated PG.

Although Pixar has had a leg up on everything animated, Disney Animation is neck and neck, what with the successes of “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” For the studio’s 55th animated feature, “Zootopia” is more than just a cute, entertaining adventure, complete with anthropomorphic animals, that will keep the kiddies awake; it’s slyly funny, socially relevant and just plain adorable. Directors Byron Howard (2010’s “Tangled”), Rich Moore (2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph”) and Jared Bush have not only made a film that is vibrant and appealing to look at but, with a shrewd script by Phil Johnston and co-director Jared Bush, has something to say within an emotionally involving bunny-cop procedural. Similar to the film’s core message, one should know better than to judge “Zootopia” for being something less than it is. 

Ever since she was 9 years old, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) has always wanted to make the world a better place. While her parents (Don Lake, Bonnie Hunt) hoped their daughter would follow in their carrot-farming footsteps, she grows up to pursue her dream of being a police officer 15 years later. This means leaving the family nest in Bunnyburrow and attending the police academy in utopian metropolis Zootopia. As a new recruit—and the only bunny on the force—Judy gets saddled with parking duty but hops to it and gets rather good at it. However, being a meter maid isn’t going to cut it with Judy, who proves her capabilities to Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). When 14 mammals go missing, Judy takes on the case with an unlikely new friend, con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who changes her preconceived notions about foxes and other predatory animals.

Without such a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed protagonist, “Zootopia” might not have elevated the archetypal girl-moves-to-the-big-city story as much as it does with Judy Hopps at the center. The teaming of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman goes a long way and could not be more endearing. Irresistibly cheerful and plucky as Judy Hopps, Goodwin is a spry bundle of energy, can-do positivity and strength; she’s a “tryer,” dammit. Bateman’s glib shtick manages to fit the exterior of a hustling sly fox such as Nick Wilde, who can verbally spar with the best of them but isn’t without a marshmallow-soft side. Other voice performances stand out, including Jenny Slate, as sheep Assistant Mayor Bellwether; J.K. Simmons, as Mayor Lionheart; Alan Tudyk, as bootlegging Duke Weaselton; Octavia Spencer, as Mrs. Otterton, the wife of an otter who’s missing; and Shakira, whose pop-star Gazelle’s foot-tapping song ‘Try Everything” will have one humming for days.

“Zootopia” is consistently charming and funny, but also wise. The visual details are certainly clever—Judy has a Carrot phone (not Apple) and her service is PB&J (not AT&T)—and the world of Zootopia is sufficiently explored, from a chase through miniature rat city Little Rodentia to a nudist colony managed by a hippie yak (Tommy Chont) who’s surrounded by flies. The mere idea of crime boss Mr. Big being a mole with polar bears as his henchmen is very funny. And yet, the film's hilarious highlight involves Nick taking Judy to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where the employees are all sloths; though Judy is in a hurry to have a license plate run, Nick decides to tell sloth the very slow-moving Flash a joke and it wastes her entire day. The jokes become all the more rewarding when the conspiracy that Judy and Nick uncover together becomes organically equipped with a surprising social undercurrent; it’s a positive message that breaks down racial profiling without coming across too preachy or heavy-handed. Methinks “Zootopia” will not budge from its place as one of 2016’s most unequivocal delights that has one coming for the laughs and taking home food for thought.

Grade: B +

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