Reviewing Disney’s newest film, Zootopia

What can you say about Disney? The damn near undisputed juggernaut of animation, Disney is the OG of the genre.

It made the first shorts, pioneered the genre, kept it afloat through hard times, and kept it relevant as each new generation of kids came and went. I know a good number of people that use the term ‘Disney’ to describe anything animated. When you become the generic term for something, you’re doing something right. Say what you will about Disney’s decision to move away from traditional animation (and part of me will always pine for the 90’s-early 00’s heydays), but I think that Disney has done a great job of transitioning to computer animation (acquiring industry pioneer and gold standard Pixar certainly helped).

Disney’s animation studio has one of the most beloved pedigrees of any movie studio, animated or otherwise, in addition to a great recent string of films (Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6). So my expectations for their latest movie, Zootopia, are sky high. It’s not good enough for a Disney movie to be good, because you are (whether it’s fair or not) going up against other Disney movies, AKA one of the highest quality and most revered collection of movies to ever exist.

Zootopia looks great. Everything about the CGI is top notch; from the fur textures (which is super important in a movie about anthropomorphic animals), to the weather effects, lighting, and all the other little and large factors that make a movie not look terrible. None of this should come as a surprise. You give a couple hundred top-notch animators two years and $140 million to make a movie and it’s going to look pretty damn good. More important than the technical aspects of the set and character design, the world of Zootopia looks like it makes sense; as in the city of Zootopia (and the surrounding countryside) feels like a real, functioning city. That may not sound like something that’s impressive, but I want you to think of how hard it is to take what should be an absurd concept and make it (at least on the surface) functional.

It seems like they spent a whole lot of time figuring out concepts like how public transportation works and how animals native to different climates interact with each other. As far as I could tell, Disney thought of every little detail of what makes a city like Zootopia work, and this fleshed out setting gives Zootopia a depth that a lot of kid’s movies don’t have.

Other than the amazing design and visual elements, Zootopia’s biggest strength is its humor. Zootopia, as a whole, is Disney’s funniest movie in years (though I will always have a soft spot for the low-power Baymax scene in Big Hero 6; it gets me every time). What makes Zootopia’s humor so strong is that it’s more than a loose collection of jokes. Zootopia’s humor primarily comes from its fantastically well-made setting and characters. This means that every joke (with a few exceptions) feels organic, like it belongs where it is. When a lot of entertainment aimed at children is a collection of simple, tact on jokes, it’s really nice to see a movie where everything fits together so well.

Zootopia’s story starts out strong, really pushing Officer Judy Hopp’s fish-out-of-water story as she struggles to make her mark in an environment were everything seems to be stacked against her. These kind of over-achieving underdog stories rely on a likeable main character, a role Judy fills nicely. Her relentless optimism and perseverance make her an endearing lead and you can’t help but hope she succeeds. She’s paired well with Nick Wilde, a street-smart fox who Judy blackmails into helping her when no one else will.

His sarcasm and constant cynicism are good contrasts to Judy’s can-do attitude and the two make for a classic opposites-attract-buddy-cop combo. The story as a whole is—while not exactly predictable—a standard cop procedural through and through. Once you get past the unique setting, all the important plot points are genre mainstays. The story isn’t terrible—it does the job and then some—but it is disappointing that a movie that put so much work into its world and character design doesn’t have an overall story that feels as inventive and unique.

While the surface plot is fairly standard, Zootopia packs in some pretty heavy themes for a kid’s movie. Among other social commentary (such as the DMV entirely staffed by sloths or that predators get all the high profile jobs), Zootopia’s two main themes are believing in yourself and never judging a book by its cover. While these are both pretty standard lessons to have in a kid’s movie, the latter starts to get a little more complicated.

Zootopia dives pretty deep into the uglier aspects of judgment, such as stereotyping and discrimination. Zootopia’s underlying message on the subject seems to be that good (and bad) people (or in this case, animals) can come from anywhere. It’s a pretty complicated, and important, subject for a kid’s movie to get into (especially for Disney, which doesn’t have the best history with this particular subject), and for most of the movie, Zootopia does a good job of relaying its message without getting in the way of the actual movie. Unfortunately, at the start of the final act, Zootopia starts to get disruptively heavy-handed.

There’s about a 10-minute section (or one tenth of the movie) where Zootopia slows way down and gets real up in your face about the whole ‘predator and prey are both just animals thing.’ In a movie that usually handles it pretty well, it kind of feels like you’re getting hit with a sledgehammer. It also doesn’t help that this comes at a crucial time in the movie, slowing down the plot at the worst possible time. The movie picks it up again for the final act, only to slow right back down for the epilogue. For a movie that started so strong, it’s a real shame that it has such a preachy, uneven ending.

Zootopia is a good movie, and for most of its run-time it’s a really good movie. But a slow, not so great ending mars an otherwise fun and unique movie experience. Zootopia’s setting is so good and its characters are relatable and endearing. It deserved better pacing, and while it’s nice to see a police procedural story in a kid’s movie, its plot is a little too standard for such a unique and well thought-out setting.

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