Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

"Although the narrative beats don’t sear with originality, it is clever and has enough nuance and ambiguity to keep folks guessing right up until the finale, with a cast of characters throughout that are a genuine treat."

Way back in the annals of time when Dreamworks hurled Shrek into the world, a good friend of mine said the acid test for a kids' film that would stand the test of time was whether it refused to anchor itself in a time frame with jokes that would one day be horribly dated. If your script is littered with references that will draw blank stares in a decade or so, then you’ve probably got a misstep on your hands. Zootropolis feels very much of the moment, but instead of kitsch asides, its jokes are woven right into its luminous tapestry.

References to the current day are very much front and centre with the mass appeal of fascicle Apps and the ubiquity of iPhones being reflected back at the audience - plus there’s also the near mandatory Godfather speech - but rather than set up the film for some awkward dating, it makes for stronger social and moral commentary, with keen hesitance observed between predator and prey, as well as modern concerns such as equality dealt with in-universe “It’s okay if a bunny calls another bunny cute, but not if another species calls a bunny cute.”

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The pitch in Zootropolis is that animals stopped being predator and prey, and learned to live together and beyond their species classifications. The hub of enlightenment is the titular city which is divided up into theme park style biomes that facilitate the various species: rainforest, sahara, tundra. They all spoke off from a slick near-future New York-aping municipal hub, replete with a train station that ferries rodents up from the platforms in dayglo tubes and caters for giraffes with juice bars equipped with tiny elevators.

The logic doesn’t work (why would hamsters build hamster tubes anyway?) but importantly it doesn’t really matter. This is, after all, a kids film, but the artificial urban convenience feels like a canny reflection of the real world. It also sets the scene for near limitless visual gags, from the aforementioned Futurama-esque tube networks, to little doors that lemmings file out of in blind trains of corporate choreography, to a resort for “nude” animals - don’t worry though, there are no Pom Poko shenanigans here.

Zootropolis happily carries its pastiche of modernity into its story, which has a little bit of Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to it. Judy Hopps (played to perky eared perfection by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the indefatigable young idealist who refuses to let anyone crush her dream, neither bullies nor overly protective families. After succeeding at becoming the first bunny cop, she moves to the titular Zootropilis. A city that’s 90% herbivores, 10% predators. The latter still rule the roost in the form of JK Simmons' preening Mayor Lionheart, whilst Jenny Slate’s Assistant Mayor Bellwether languishes in a tiny closet. The imbalance feels like a wry observation about the current state of urban living, and this thread is thankfully not abandoned and even has a pleasingly smart denouement.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed (no, really) Hopps is given short shrift and a Meter Maid assignment by her superior, and through this she meets irascible fox and con man Nick Wilde, played in wonderfully smug and sneering fashion by Jason Bateman. When Hopps smells a rat - both literally and figuratively - she gets embroiled in the disappearance of numerous predators from across the city, and stakes her career on finding a missing otter.

A buddy cop dynamic is brought into play as our brave little bunny hustles the hustler and uses Nick’s seedy contacts to help her investigate. Their constant one-upmanship and eventual bonding is wittily written and sharply delivered. Deft characteristics from each partner's past come to the fore when the emotional core of the film gets going, and instead of black and white moral grandstanding, there’s nuance and failure at work - indeed the chief message of the film is Try Everything, handily reinforced by in-universe Pop singer Gazelle (Shakira).

Although the narrative beats don’t sear with originality, it is clever and has enough nuance and ambiguity to keep folks guessing right up until the finale, with a cast of characters throughout that are a genuine treat. Idris Elba’s surly Chief Bogo is a highlight, especially with his predilection for previous Disney animated hits, and Nate Torrence’s overweight Cheetah, Officer Clawhauser, makes an excellent case for predators being as harmless as herbivores in this bristling neo-noir. Punches aren’t pulled with the jokes either, with Nick's rapid vernacular epitomising the wily fox, and the excruciatingly long winded diversion in the DMV, obviously staffed by sloths, of all things, feels like the kind of joke that would have been edited down until its point was lost by a lesser studio.

Comparisons with Pixar are unavoidable, but Disney have a classy, well observed, and visually spectacular film on their hands. Animals with voices are a mainstay of the kids' film sector, but unlike Madagascar and films that attempt a more risque or bawdy take on the style, Zootropolis handles its anthropomorphised cast as both parody of real life, and wildlife. The scorching colours, subtle details and wonderful animation are just the surface details of a film that has a lot of heart and a conscience that will see it as a mainstay of the Disney canon for years to come.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2016
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A little rabbit works hard to prove she can be just as good a police officer as the bigger, fiercer animals on her team.
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Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Writer: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston

Starring: voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J K Simmons, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, Shakira

Year: 2016

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


Glasgow 2016

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If you like this, try:

Who Framed Roger Rabbit