“Zootopia”: Welcome to the Harerdome


If you refuse to see it in theaters, the “sloth trailer” alone is a hoot. I can only imagine how excruciating that scene probably was to animate using, like, a hundred times as many frames per movement.

The worldwide phenomenon about two unique individuals from very different worlds — one who’s itching for justice, one who’s given some thought to law enforcement — passed $300 million this weekend at the U.S. box office and proved major studios are still capable of putting out product that can contemplate serious topics even while reveling in visual flair and not shying away from moments of intensity or even a few tears.

No, not the one with the angry costumed guys in it.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In the funny-animal universe of Disney’s Zootopia, Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time‘s Snow White) is Officer Judy Hopps, a first-day academy graduate freshly moved from her farm-town of Bunnyburrow to the big city of Zootopia, eager to serve and protect, quick to get mocked and mistreated by her speciesist fellow officers, especially by her water-buffalo boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba!), who’s got no time to mollycoddle weaker recruits. Officer Hopps accepts her rookie assignment to meter-maid duty and becomes the strictest and most energetic meter maid in multiversal history.

Hopps finds other situations in need of her talents — missing animals no one cares about, other animals going into regressive fits of rage — and finds her skills and patience tested when her investigations require info from a particularly wily civilian/fox — a grifter named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, equal parts smarm and charm as only an established pro can do) nearly as condescending as the guys back at the station. Things escalate quickly (except at the DMV) and the mismatched duo find themselves working together to save their city and 21st-century animal society as they know it.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Academy Award J.K. Simmons is the lion mayor of Zootopia; his sheep assistant is Jenny Slate, a.k.a. Mona-Lisa Saperstein from Parks & Rec. Judy’s homespun parents are Pixar vet Bonnie Hunt and her frequent costar/collaborator, character actor Don Lake. Nate Torrence (Studio 60, the Get Smart reboot) is what if Jonah Hill were an overweight cheetah officer assigned to front-desk duty.

Citizens around town include ’70s pot-comedy master Tommy Chong as a helpful nudist (leading into sharp gags about the ever-present debate over clothed vs. unclothed animals in cartoons); Alan Tudyk, Disney Animation’s new answer to John Ratzenberger, as a weaselly weasel; Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer as an otter with a missing husband; veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche as an above-average Don Corleone send-up, with Veronica Mars‘ Kristen Bell as his daughter; and Shakira as basically herself as a gazelle, there to sing the movie’s would-be hit single “Try Everything”, which sounds like it’s about self-destructive overindulgence when in fact it’s about not quitting your dreams despite opposition and failure.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Civilization has come a long way since more savage times in ancient history, but it only takes a single match to light a powder keg whose explosion reveals how little the various species think of each other, how distrust runs deep despite generations of ostensible advancement, and how carelessly we lapse into harmful generalizations when we discuss “their” faults while ignoring our own, and while explaining to our one friend who’s one of “them” how they’re obviously “different” from “them” because uh uh uh um uh reasons.

By the film’s end it’s a citywide controversy, but for Officer Hopps it starts at ground level with her very workplace. Though most of the film is an overt anti-racism allegory, there’s nothing at the police station to exclude sexism as an accomplice. Hopps is tiny, fragile, inferior, not taken seriously, and consequently forced to work ten times as hard to earn any respect. It’s an uphill battle, but a terrible first day isn’t enough to make her quit her job or her dream. (Note: if farming is your dream, you may have a slightly harder time relating to Our Hero.)

The Shakira song and the movie itself both advocate rebelling against your very nature to be who you want to be. In Hopps’ case it’s her vision of being the first rabbit officer in Zootopia. For Nick it’s a longer story, one in which he had thoughts of a non-fox career track, but ended up on a more predictable path because of traumatic deterrents in his past.

The heaviest moment is an anguished conversation runs the gauntlets of repentance, humility, and the kind of forgiveness that’s seen far, far too rarely on the big screen. In an entertainment climate where grudges between characters are easy and warlike vengeance against each other is easier and comfier, confessing mistakes and mending fences are tougher, messier, more complicated acts to write. Zootopia nails them.

Nitpicking? Racism leads at the forefront almost to a heavy-handed fault. Some scenes sound lifted verbatim from any given social-justice flame war about any race-related headline incident you care to dredge up. It’s interesting to see them in new contexts, but distracting for adults who already get it. Sadly, the approach is probably warranted. Given how much race-relation tensions seem to figure into so, so many headlines nowadays, it’s plain to see entire generations are apparently forgetting or willfully ignoring the lessons we were meant to glean from all those marches, speeches, and wars. Someone’s gonna have to keep bringing the (re)education until some actual learning happens.

Also, I hate to undercut the movie’s funniest sequence, but my experiences at Indiana’s own DMV outlets in recent years haven’t been anywhere near as torturous as they were when I was a kid. My heart goes out to any states where the DMV moves as glacially now with computers at their fingertips as they did forty years ago with paper forms and overstuffed filing cabinets.

Also my own problem: not even halfway through, I guessed the guilty party behind the central whodunit via careful application of the Law of Economy of Characters where it intersected with the simple question of Who Benefits. Yay me, sorta, but I was disappointed because I do like surprises.

Mild parental note: tiny kids may be shocked out of their seats by a few scenes of sudden animal rage. Don’t be surprised if they bury their head in your sweater.

So what’s to like? Goodwin’s overchiever Hopps and Bateman’s layered fox are a joy to watch even while they’re grating on each other. If you like an angry Idris Elba, you’ll enjoy the surfeit here as long as you don’t mind his water buffalo being a big jerk. Whether you’re full-on into diversity or you’re still in the “I have this one black friend who” section, it’s fun nonetheless to get lost in Zootopia the city itself — a fully realized, fascinating multi-level society, organized more by animal size than by any social or economic castes, accommodating their anthropomorphism while retaining their most well-known traits in our world (witness the rapidly spinning counter on the Bunnyburrow “Population:” sign). The city is large and contains multitudes, providing platforms for wacky animal humor, zippy action sequences (the weasel chase is a highlight), death-defying danger, methodical mysteries, bridge-building across vast divides, and yes, deep thoughts about Why Can’t We All Just Get Along.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Zootopia end credits (there’s also no cartoon short preceding it), though it’s worth noting the “Special Thanks” section includes a few real-life female police officers who, I’m guessing, served as either consultants or inspiration for Officer Hopps. Good reminder that she’s not alone and law enforcement officers like her aren’t all the stuff of pure fiction.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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