ZOOTROPOLIS (which has the much better title of ZOOTOPIA in the States) is not only the best film of 2016 so far but also may well be the most important. It’s the usual pristine, vibrant and peppy animation from the House of Mouse but with far more going on below the surface.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny with a dream. Not content with her family’s safe and comfortable life of carrot farming, she moves to the big city to become the first ever rabbit cop. Tasked with demeaning and menial work by her superiors, Judy gets the chance to prove her worth when, with the reluctant help of fox grifter Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) she begins to unravel a conspiracy to tear animal society apart.
Zootropolis is a great analysis of prejudice, holding an unforgiving mirror up to Western society and making great use of the workings of the animal kingdom as allegory. Presumptions are made about particular animals, their instincts and their predispositions to particular careers. You come to Zootropolis to become anything you want, only that’s not possible for some animals. Bunnies will always be cute (“We can call each other that, but…”) and foxes will always be scheming.
Obviously as a take on race relations this animation can’t be as explicit as, for instance, last year’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (“You can’t arrest them just for being black!”) but there’s still some pretty merciless satirical commentary here. Look at how quickly the animal police force both turn on their carnivore colleagues and swoop down on meat-eating citizens in the street following some disturbing events reaching the media (“It’s not like a bunny could go savage”, “But a fox could, huh?”).
It’s not all serious of course. The gags are rapid-fire, ranging from visual jokes based around animals’ physiology and behaviour such as the already infamous and painfully funny sloth-manned DMV scene to much bluer references to rabbits’ famous promiscuity (Hopp’s hometown population sign is constantly fluctuating, she comments herself offhand that her kind are “good at multiplying”). Judy and Nick’s uneasy relationship is classic cop movie stuff, but it’s given an honesty and real heart by Goodwin and Bateman’s top-notch voice work. Elsewhere the cast is filled out with as diverse personalities as Idris Elba, Jenny Slate and Maurice LaMarche, all making their animated avatars (some of the most expressive ever created by Disney) distinctive and as real as anthropomorphic animals can possibly feel.
Zootropolis is not only funny and witty, but it’s built around a really good noir mystery that plumbs the murky depths of four distinct habitats as districts of a vast animal city. For once the workings of this bizarre animated world are incorporated into the film’s plot – they’re not anthropomorphic animals just because that’s what you do in a cartoon, but their evolved state and advanced society teetering on the verge of reverting back to a more savage time is an essential part of the plot development. Aside from indulging a few of the usual buddy movie conventions towards the film’s end, the way key information is gradually and shockingly revealed makes this more akin to CHINATOWN than FROZEN.
With the depressingly high number of hate-fuelled atrocities committed every day and reported by global media, Zootropolis couldn’t be more timely. There’s a lot that kids will like here, but this is a hard-hitting, relevant and adult animation at its core, probably destined to be appreciated even more by parents than by their children. Who’d have thought that Disney would be the studio with their fingers on the pulse and prepared to show audiences the world over what they really are? SSP