Sunday, March 13, 2016

'Zootopia' review

We're witnessing quite the paradigm shift in the world of animated movies right now. Throughout the early years of the new century, Pixar dominated the game, with Dreamworks falling pretty far behind. Pixar, the California-based studio now operating under the oversight of Disney, churned out a consistent series of masterpieces, from Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo to Wall-E and Up. Despite the occasional smash hit from Dreamworks (Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon), there was absolutely no question about who the best in the animated business. Unfortunately, as the new decade dawned, things began to change at Pixar. After Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University, fans and critics started to realize that maybe the studio wasn't as infallible as they once thought. As Pixar retreated back, younger studios seized the opportunity to rise to power. Warner Animation Group released The LEGO Movie to critical and audience acclaim in early 2014, legitimizing the new startup. Universal grew the Despicable Me franchise to billion-dollar heights. And finally, Disney regained its crown as the King of Animation.

Now, let's keep in mind that Pixar did just release Inside Out, one of their greatest films and a film that deserves to be considered an all-time classic. But after Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and now, Zootopia, there's no question in my mind that Disney is leading the pack in terms of creativity, innovation and storytelling brilliance. After the slight setback that was Big Hero 6, Disney roars back to life with Zootopia, a thrilling, righteously funny crime drama with a pulsing social conscience. In addition to its colorful, complex world that you'll want to spend hours exploring, Zootopia features a phenomenal story that is completely engrossing. Effective on a character and metaphorical level, Zootopia will delight adults and children alike. It's destined to become a new Disney classic.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has always wanted to be something more. Labeled as a "cute" bunny as a kid, Judy has been out to prove to her parents, her friends and her community that she can be the first rabbit Police Officer in the Zootopia Police Department. After a grueling week of training, Judy's dream comes true- she's appointed by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) to the ZPD. However, not everyone is so accepting. Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) doesn't believe in her abilities and treats her as an outcast in the predator-heavy ranks of the Police Department. Judy is stuck on parking duty, and despite her best efforts, her dream slowly turns into a nightmare.

Soon enough, opportunity comes knocking in the form of a case that has mostly been ignored by the rest of the cops. Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer), the wife of Emmet Otterton, has been coming to the ZPD for weeks about her husband's mysterious disappearance. There's no traction on the case and no witnesses to go on, leading Chief Bogo to inform Mrs. Otterton that the case is a lost cause. Nonetheless, that won't deter Judy, who is given 48 hours by Bogo to solve the case or resign. With the help of con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who just might be a witness to the case, Judy will delve into the seedy underbelly of Zootopia, moving from naturalist clubs to crime organizations, potentially revealing a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of the shining city.

Zootopia is a remarkable film in nearly every way. It's satisfying on a character level, giving us a cast of dynamic, fascinating Disney creations that evolve and change throughout the story. It's stylistically terrific, mixing the bright pop of an animated film with a jazzy style that recalls classics like L.A. Confidential and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. From a political perspective, Zootopia is effective, giving social critics and thematically-driven viewers plenty of material to dissect and discuss. And on a fundamental storytelling level, it hits pretty much all of the right notes. The story flows naturally, with just enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. So yeah, despite some minor quibbles I had with the pacing, this really is nearly the perfect package.

But if you merely looked at the number of cooks in the kitchen on this film, you probably would have never guessed that it'd be so terrific. Zootopia was directed by Rich Moore, Byron Howard and Jared Bush, with Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee and Dan Fogelman contributing to the story/screenplay. That rounds up to a whopping 8 people involved with crafting the story of this film, which is a daunting number for any movie. In that case, it's amazing that Zootopia ends up working as such a cohesive, singular vision. It unfolds so effortlessly and it's so smoothly produced that it's winds up hooking you early on.

Part of that instant connection comes from the voice cast and the characters, most of whom are instantly likable and funny. Judy Hopps is a plucky and determined heroine, voiced with energy and grit by Ginnifer Goodwin. From the moment that Zootopia starts, Hopps is positioned as the clear lead and she's a universally likable character. Her foil is the laidback and quick-witted Nick Wilde, who is driven by street smarts and voiced with snarky ease by Jason Bateman. As the story progresses, Hopps and Wilde begin to warm up to each other, and we're introduced to the buddy cop storyline, the other genre element that makes this movie a blast of fun. One of the reasons that I really want to see Zootopia become a franchise is the fantastic chemistry between Hopps and Wilde. By the end of the film, they're a perfect match and I truly want to see more of these two great characters in the future.

While Hopps and Wilde are undoubtedly the central characters of the film, the supporting cast is pretty phenomenal. From critical players like Chief Bogo and Deputy Mayor Bellwether, to the smaller characters like Yax and Mr. Big, the supporting unit is colorful and fun. Zootopia works as an archetypal crime drama in many ways, and the secondary players fill both the traditional roles of the noir potboiler and enrich the spectacular universe that the film creates. Because that's one of the most magical aspects of Zootopia. Like the early Pixar classics and some of the greatest animated films, the world of Zootopia is so well thought-out, all the way down to the most minute detail. It's such an immersive society and I could have spent hours digging through this universe.

But as it goes with most great films, it all flows back to story. What I think is most exceptional about Zootopia's story is how well it services everything that this film is trying to accomplish. By crafting a crime mystery, Zootopia perfectly meshes its style, its characters and its racial message into a perfect brew. It caters to both young and old audiences, working with a tale that is unpredictable, and most importantly, a whole lot of fun. As a fan of old school crime movies and flashy noir comedies like Inherent Vice, this movie feels like it was made for me. If any of this sounds appealing to you, you'll probably love Zootopia.

However, if you're not usually an animated fan and you're hearing about this movie, it's probably because it has an incredibly topical message that is resonating beyond the usual boundaries for a kids movie. The surprising fact of the matter is that Zootopia isn't exactly guarded with its metaphorical racial statement- the way it's presented borderlines on preachy and it's abundantly clear what the filmmakers are going for. Nonetheless, the film overcomes that with a sly sense of satirical humor mixed with the other incredibly effective elements of the film. Zootopia's set up- prey make up the majority of the population and they're finally beginning to get along with the predators- is already being picked apart by critics, but I wouldn't put a whole lot of extra meaning into it. The overall message is rather simple, and in such a contentious time, that message that will go a very, very long way.

Endlessly witty, smart and fun, Zootopia is another great addition to the Disney canon, filled with terrific characters and an important anti-prejudice message. It's a triumph in every aspect of creativity and storytelling, hitting all the right beats as it moves through its addicting tale. It's everything you could want from a Disney movie and more. In fact, Zootopia is practically the perfect storm of an animated movie, blending genres, turning a crooked eye to American society and throwing in pop culture references like it's nobody's business. After all, this is a kids' movie with an extended Godfather joke. I mean, come on. How can you not love it?

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, The Guardian, Joblo

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