Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review: "Zootopia"

A middle-shelf offering from the Disney animation empire, "Zootopia" is a message movie in which the message sometimes overpowers the film's entertainment value. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but these 'toons are primarily viewed as fodder for families with small children -- and mine, 2 and 5, got a mite restless during the middle.

They still enjoyed it, though parents might like this one more than their kids will.

Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a chirpy go-getter from the sticks who dreams of becoming a police officer in the big burg of Zootopia. Only one problem: she's a cute little bunny in a world largely ruled by big critters. Most rabbits, like her Ma and Pa (Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake) are relegated to boring farm work. Of course, she doesn't listen and strives to become more than she is.

If the movie's major theme weren't obvious enough, the song lyrics clue us in: "Where You Can Be Anything," "Try Everything," etc. Shakira does the voice of ruling pop star Gazelle.

In this alternate-reality universe, the animals kept evolving into upright talkers who set aside their bestial ways. (Unlike last year's similarly set up "The Good Dinosaurs," humans are nowhere in sight at all.)

But there are still some unspoken divisions, mostly between former predators and their prey. Lions, tigers, wolves and the like tend to be in positions of power, like the Mayor (J.K. Simmons), Leodore Lionheart. Nobody actually eats anyone anymore -- their exact food sources are left a little vague -- but even among the former prey, the bigger, tougher animals (elephants, rhino, rams) tend to get their way.

Zootopia is a colorful, visually astounding place, split up into different habitats and even temperature zones. Given the large degree in size variation among the denizens, there are all sorts of accommodations. Judy, used to being the teeniest mammal around, is suddenly transformed into a colossus when she chases a thief into the Rodentville neighborhood.

Judy's boundless enthusiasm is dashed when the surly police chief, a growling buffalo named Bogo (Idris Elba), assigns her to write parking tickets. She also has a run-in with Nick Wilde, a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman. He's running a nice scam where he buys massive frozen pops from the elephant store, melts them down and freezes them into tiny confections he sells to the gerbil-folk at markup.

As you can see, Zootopia is a seemingly wonderful place with lots of problems underneath. The creatures tend to assign themselves roles based on stereotypes. So cynical Nick, always written off as the tricksy troublemaker, finally decided to play along.

The main storyline is something of a red herring, about predators suddenly turning savage again. Judy is given 48 hours to run down a missing otter, and hustles Nick into helping her in return for not busting him for his quasi-legal shenanigans. Various shifts occur in the relationship, from antagonism to cooperation to friendship to betrayal to... well, you'll see. Jared Bush and Phil Johnson wrote the (not terribly) original screenplay.

"Zootopia" is directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, both Disney veterans who've directed solid features before. Moore and Johnston previously worked together on "Wreck It Ralph," and I'd put this film in the same category quality-wise. Some of the throwaway jokes are real gems, such as an unexpected crime boss who's pure Vito Corleone -- micro-sized.

I appreciated the theme of following our better instincts. "Fear always works," the villain intones -- an ominous warning that can be seen reflected in much of our public discourse these days. It's a noble sentiment, pounded perhaps a bit too hard.

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