When I saw the teaser for Zootopia, it didn’t really grab my interest more than “huh, nifty.” It was that lack of super interest though that had me watch the main trailer*, and somehow, something in that main trailer, over time, began to worm its way into my psyche. For some reason I kept going back to watch it again. When the poster came out, I loved all the (familiar feeling) puns. I watched the trailer some more. I continued to get excited for this movie.
And so it was with some trepidation that I walked into the theatre, worried that I might have built the movie up to such a height, and that the film would fall down under poor storytelling or into a non-story event of over the top silly hijinks…
So here’s my Zootopia review. Spoilers ahead!
Yeah, worry completely gone. Zootopia is a GOOD film. I loved it and I’m totally giddy about it, and can’t wait to see it again. It has oomph and it flows well. It has zany hilarity bits, but they don’t overstay their welcome. It is inventive, but it doesn’t indulge itself. It has a delicious and wonderful and solid philosophical core. And above all else, it breaks the mold. Hard. Right from the get-go. The usual send up – if you believe in yourself the heavens will part and the angels will sing – gets pilloried by Nick not all that far into its running time. In plain language and in no uncertain terms. (While, in a nice visual touch, as they walk from a shiny road to a more downtrodden place.) I really give this film props for this: it goes beyond the current crop of “believe in yourself” motifs and instead gives the much more helpful and authentic “create who you want to be, be determined, and work for it.” Nothing comes like magic. Things are messy. You will fall down. That’s ok. That’s what this is all about.
To that end I’m a little saddened that a line from that strangely captivating trailer (and maybe this is beginning to explain why it was so captivating to me) that didn’t make it into the final cut: Chief Bogo saying “It not about how badly you want something, it’s about what you’re capable of!” Because it would have tied beautifully into the two main themes of this movie. The first I noted above. The second, and more profound, is about learning to see others, and what they’re capable of, beyond our first impressions, beyond our hidden biases. Especially in a movie where there are dramatic differences between the species, where straight jacketed views and ‘truths’ can, and do, run rampant.
To quote from a different source: “You can’t make a racehorse out of a pig.” “No, but you can make a very fast pig.” (John Steinbeck) Judy will never be as strong as a rhino or a tiger, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any less capable of being a police officer.
Judy, in a way, says some of this in her speech at the end of the movie, but to have had it mentioned at the beginning and then closed in a full-circle way (with growth and insight by those all around) at the end would have been so satisfying.
I give the movie double big props for that second theme too. It really tackles the idea of bias, and, especially, hidden biases, head on. It’s really great: Judy is as full of it as her antagonists. Even though she’s battling Chief Bogo’s views of her, she’s just as susceptible. She tells Nick near the beginning (right after witnessing even more discrimination!) “You’re really articulate.” Ouch. She pretends she’s over Gideon’s treatment, and that her parent’s warnings don’t hold sway over her, yet, there she is, with that, saying that. It blows up even more spectacularly at the press conference. And she gets to recognize it. Gets to see it all. In herself. Gets the impact of it. Gets to deal with it. And then she gets to transform it, which she does. And goes forward, cleans things up, and creates a bond that was even stronger than before.
Best of all this is handled, for the most part, with aplomb, avoiding almost all frying-pan-over-the-head type moments with the “message”. Like all great fiction, there is a premise that is explored and examined and brought to light, and what we learn and get from it comes naturally from the story, not from a signpost.
Overall the storytelling is handled with a nice touch. It uses the template of a buddy cop movie at its core, and handles it deftly and with respect (not a parody). The relationship between Judy and Nick grows organically – there’s no forced romance here. Their closeness is earned. During the end sequence while the two are dancing, there’s a rather subtle look from Nick where he, as though for the first time, is realizing the fondness and love he’s developed for Judy. She brings him back to his idealism, while he brings her forward in how to deal with the world in its “imperfections”. Absolutely wonderful and touching.
There’s so much great stuff in here!
- The animation is, no surprise, amazing. But it was a surprise just HOW amazing. There is so much lushness. The rendering quality here has been taken up to whole new realms of exquisiteness, with amazing (and individually rendered) fur, great lighting quality, wonderful expressions and emotes, scenes where nearly everything in motion (very rare in animation), and an nice attention to depth of field. Splendid and gorgeous.
- The character design is excellent – I loved looking at that image of Judy on the chase on my desktop not only because of her determination and enthusiasm, but because of the attention to detail, right down the way they did her ‘footwear’. It’s just fantastic.
- And wow, seriously, all those details in this movie! When the movie comes out to home media, being able to paws the movie and stare at a scene to see what’s in the background is going to be a serious treat. I can’t wait to explore all the ways the different species’ needs are handled in the city, and all the anthropomorphic ergonomics.
- Not to mention all the puns. I do love me my puns!
- Each background character was also, apparently, given a backstory to ensure richness.
- And the architecture is nicely done too. Very Tomorowland inspired, very Disney and golden age adventure-esque. Reminds me a bit of some parts of Tale Spin’s Cape Suzette mixed with Sci-Fi of yore mixed with the works of contemporary architects.
- I can’t wait to see what Nick wrote on his application…
- The music is good, and that end song/sequence is rockin.**
- And just that end sequence itself, wow, what could have been a throwaway fun way to end the movie instead contains brilliant moments and elements that continue and complete the whole package. We have Chief Bogo letting go of his embarrassment at being a Gazelle fan (and the ‘not manliness’ of it all) and dancing with abandon. We have great predators being dancers (not a threat!) to a prey singer. And the event as a whole, that the whole city is there together, dancing together… it’s a fabulous Where the Heck is Matt type moment.
- Peter Moosebridge! It was great to hear the stately tones of the long time CBC News anchor, given how regularly I used to watch the National. Actually, I was a bit disappointed though that he only had two lines in the whole movie… but then I found out that they localized that character for different markets (Jaguar, Koala, Tanuki, Panda, and Corgi), so that’s nifty!
- The radio joke was genius. One sad song after another, getting worse, until Judy turns it “off”, and we’re left with the background sad movie score music… until the Oryx neighbours call out to “turn off that sad music!”… which we hadn’t noticed because it was background movie score music. Well played.
- There are a few instances of “lucky coincidences” to keep the story moving forward, and it’s unfortunate they couldn’t have written themselves a better way forward, but it’s nothing as egregious as some other movies I’ve seen recently…
- The scene where Gideon apologizes is one of the most adult things I’ve seen in film in a long time. Period. Even compared to so-called “adult” R-rated films. Taking responsibility and apologizing, even years later. So great.
- Something about how the Otterton’s are portrayed just struck me as seriously sweet and genuine and heartfelt.
Judy’s apology to Nick went overboard. Taking it to the level of “I’m a stupid bunny” was completely not necessary.Completely changed my mind after a second viewing.
- But Nick forgiving her and even being playful about it was so generous and awesome.
- Toilets don’t work that way!
- Deputy Mayor Bellweather’s villainous intentions came somewhat out of left field. She’s being ignored and treated very poorly, yes, but there was something lacking in the motivation for her to bring it up to “let’s frame all the predators” level. There’s no example that the predators are running everything – the chief of police is an herbivore even – and prejudice seems to run strong both ways in the city, so… what gives? It didn’t detract in the moment, but it was a weak point.
There’s one major thing that keeps Zootopia from being an Excellent movie in my book, and that is this: they try to have their cake and eat it too. For a movie whose major premise is to look past the biases and our stories about each other, the movie also relies heavily on them for its laughs. Bunnies who multiply fast, the weaselly weasel, the Italian gangster, and the slow sloths at the DMV (yes, even though it is subverted to an extent at the end of the movie…***). It’s a mixing of the intention, or a diminishment of it, when you’re saying “these people are what they are, haha” while also trying to say “people are not all the same, see and judge them for who they are not who you think they are.” It undermines what’s being created.
In addition, you have Judy both making “I’ll arrest you, or I’ll turn a blind eye if you let this fox buy this thing” type deals, and also… there’s her dealing with the most feared crime boss in the city. Even bringing a suspect to him for interrogation. That’s not exactly police procedure and morally suspect.
And Mayor Lionheart was a big jerk, calling his staff pet names, and … that was never fully addressed.
If you’re going to go big, which they did – and I do so totally applaud them for going big! – you need to follow through big, and I feel taking those few easy outs for a few easy laughs undermined that follow through.
While that keeps it from being an unequivocal Excellent in my book, make no mistake this is still a fabulous movie, one that fires on all cylinders on many levels. It’s Pixar level of storytelling/depth when Pixar’s hot. It is, in some ways, even beyond Ratatouille and WALL-E levels of greatness. This is a movie I know I’ll watch again and again.
Go, now, and see Zootopia. I enjoyed it a tonne, I am totally obsessing over it right now. I rate it Excellent Minus for being solid, well executed, weighty, and profound film. Well done Disney, well done.
(Update: Additional thoughts posted!)
* If there’s a movie I really want to see, I tend to not watch the trailers for it, for a variety of reasons…
** Which has quickly become one of my fav Disney pop songs!
*** Plus can’t we lay off the hardworking folk at the DMV?