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Non-Review Review: Zootropolis (aka Zootopia)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Zootropolis is a solidly entertaining family film that strains under the weight of its core premise.

There is a great idea in here, a detective film set in an anthropomorphised world featuring a rabbit and fox who must team up to solve a number of mysterious disappearances. Along the way, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston fashion the story into an allegory rich with social commentary about race and class issues in American cities. It helps that the script is light on its feet and packed with enough fast gags that it breezes along without ever getting stuck in the same place for too long.

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However, this becomes a problem in and of itself. There is a sense that Zootropolis struggles to do too much in the space afforded to it. The plot covers quite a lot of ground as our plucky heroes embark on their investigation, including extended (and overt) riffs on pop culture standards like The Godfather and Breaking Bad. There are points at which it feels like Zootropolis might be a much stronger film if it slowed down a bit, instead of hopping from one set-up to the next in the style of its rabbit protagonist.

Zootropolis largely works, but it never comes together in the way that the best Disney outings do. There are points at which Zootropolis feels more like a turducken than a chimera.

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The plot set-up is pretty straightforward. Judy Hopps is the first rabbit to graduate from the police academy; emerging at the top of her class, Judy is assigned to the precinct at the heart of Zootropolis. In the big city, class divisions become pronounced, with obvious divisions existing between species that were traditionally “predators” and those who were traditionally “prey.” Although initially assigned to traffic duty, Judy quickly finds herself drawn into an investigation involving the mysterious disappearance of a bunch of predators.

Along the way, Judy finds herself working with feisty con artist named Nick Wilde, a fox who survives according to an elaborate hustle that also serves (efficiently enough) as a whistle-stop tour of the animated film’s world. One of the greatest strengths of Zootropolis is the care that the film takes in fleshing out and developing its fantastical world in a clean and clear manner. The film’s logic is not always airtight, but this is a movie about anthropomorphised talking animals; little details suggest a reasonably developed world.

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Perhaps Zootropolis devotes too much effort to mapping out its world and not enough to developing its characters. Judy Hoops and Nick Wilde are fleshed out quite well, even if their psychology seems a little straightforward and generic; Wilde’s detachment inevitably gives way to a tragic back story that explains his gruff demeanour. The rest of the cast feel surprisingly two dimensional. Actors like Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons are wasted in archetypal roles. The identity of the villain can be deduced by the process of elimination rather than character development.

Space that could be given over to character development is instead allocated to set pieces and pop culture gags, as if the film is more breathlessly obsessed with demonstrating how fully-formed its world is than it is in populating that world with compelling characters. In particular, the film doesn’t necessarily need overt references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad, despite devoting considerable effort to them. To be fair, the script (and the film) move fast enough that these issues are not as severe as they might otherwise be, but they are still problems.

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Zootropolis does make a very sincere attempt to engage with the contemporary political climate. The film constructs a potent metaphor for the power of fear in American life, creating a world populated by characters who are perpetually afraid of random violence from so-called “predators.” Given the racially-charged nature of contemporary American political discourse, it is certainly a timely theme. Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston make a commendable effort to engage with issues like racial profiling and stereotyping.

On some level, Zootropolis is arguably misguided. After all, a rabbit almost certainly has a legitimate evolutionary justification for fearing a fox, which makes the racial metaphor at the heart of the story somewhat clumsy at best and problematic at worst. Nevertheless, Zootropolis has its heart in the right place and makes a genuine effort to address what are very pressing concerns for the United States in the twenty-first century; that it explores this issues with more nuance than most animated films is commendable.

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At the same time, there is a sense that Zootropolis is not yet fully formed, that it is mixed bag of interesting ideas competing for space. Still, at its worst moments it is an interesting failure and its best it is an entertaining allegory.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting review.

    Now that I think about it, it’s interesting you never reviewed Big Hero 6 or especially Frozen (and if you have, I couldn’t find them in any search for, on or through the blog). As a matter of fact, out of all the non-Pixar ‘Disney Animated Canon’ films, I only remember seeing reviews of yours for Tangled, The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty and now Zootropolis.

    Although there are many sites that already do those reviews in many different ways, from The Disney Odyssey to Unshaved Mouse (which is also Irish, by the way), maybe we could see at least a retrospective on 1967’s Jungle Book around the release of this year’s live action version? Just an idea.

  2. Thanks for sharing , Because of busy job, I have not saw the movie yet,but i have planned tickets with my friends in this weekends , just so excited, thousands of reviews on blog for the film, well done, Disney.

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