Review: ZOOTOPIA (2016)

By Darin Skaggs

 

The new batch of Disney films have been taking on some chances and soft digs at themselves. So much so that every review I write that has the Disney logo at the beginning has that statement in it. It is true though, Frozen and Maleficent take on the savior prince vs. a more realistic version of love, Big Hero 6 dealt with grief on a mature level and Inside Out let sadness be an essential and powerful part of life. All those aspects that Disney has been exploring is all an inner dilemma or feeling. Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush’s Zootopia takes on a subject relevant today, a subject that was also taken on by big time directors like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. The film deals with racism, the kind inspired by the events in Ferguson among others, the same events that influenced the auteurs to make their latest projects. In this bold attempt they also throw in an odd array of jokes that reference pop culture and a few about how funny it is when animals act like humans. The jokes do not all work, which undercuts the big point, but not totally. Zootopia is a funny, sometimes unfunny, well-made lesson movie about how we should treat everyone with respect no matter what unnecessary stereotype has been planted in your brain.

The clashing serious themes and silly jokes all come together with a pretty good story. This is a world where there are no humans, just animals and they have created a human like society complete with clothes, similar buildings and accessories like guns for the cops and vehicles to get around. The movie stars a young, petite bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced Ginnifer Goodwin) who dreams of being a cop for the city of Zootopia. Her parents are reluctant about her, more worried for her safety and the rejection they assume she will face when she goes out to try out to become a cop. Of course she spends the next fifteen years trying to get on to the force. She does and when she arrives excitingly at her new job she is assigned to parking duty. Upset she does her job well, but wants more. After a few plot points she gets a chance at finding a missing otter. To get some help she blackmails a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who has been caught in a long con. She does this even after her parents warning her that foxes are dangerous, hence the racism themes. They do become pretty good friends and work together pretty well not only to solve one missing otter case, but help solve all the missing person cases.

This is one of Disney’s biggest message films. It is made to teach kids to not be racist, and even a big anti-sexist theme as well. Judy is a representative of women as she fights to even be a police officer and when she makes it they give her the “safe” job. Even her parents, who are supportive, don’t want her in danger and are over protective. The movie goes out of its way to show that the big animals, who represent men, may be stronger, and even so that does not matter. It shows Judy using her brain, figuring out things at the same time or even before the other cops. She also keeps up with them physically too. It wants to teach the young, small kids, whatever gender to not give up on their dreams. All through the movie you see some situations that seem like recent events, like the fear that predator animals are attacking people and lets the prey public become afraid. It also focuses on our mistakes of the past where when we first met the Nick character he is being denied elephant sized popsicles because they do not serve his kind there. It screams the crazy law in the 1960’s where they separated Whites and Blacks establishments and even restrooms, or water fountains. The movie explores what happened in the past and what is happening now and hoping that the next generation will have learned by then we are just all equal.

This is a movie all for kids; it has easy jokes, funny-for-all jokes and jokes for mom and dad just in case they are watching, which includes some really weird pop culture references. Not all of these jokes work I would say, and sadly they are about half and half, probably leaning toward the more positive side. There is a whole character who is a reference to The Godfather, a little gerbil ironically named Mr. Big (wonderfully voiced by the great Maurice LaMarche). It is obviously The Godfather being referenced, it is quoted directly for some reason, and I am not sure why. The joke just doesn’t work and most of the pop culture gags are not funny. Now comedy is subjective and you might think it is a pretty clever homage and you might think the animals acting like humans are just plain stupid, but those are the ones that worked for me. There is the character Lionheart, who is a Lion mayor (voiced by J.K. Simmons) who is dressed in a nice suit. This is funny to me and the gags like them throughout the film are a charming little addition to this picture. Overall the humor for most I predict will be hit or miss. The message however will stick, it will make you think about your society and even your own actions. The perfect message film from Disney that as a comedy I could really give or take.

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