22 March 2016
Since 1995, Pixar have been pretty much the undisputed champions of Western animation, and it isn't difficult to see why. While their biggest competitors were making entertaining but ultimately childish films for younger audiences, Pixar have been creating mature films with interesting concepts, engaging characters, robust narratives and increasingly intelligent themes, all while still managing to appeal to audiences of all ages.
But the gap between Pixar and its rivals has been closing for some time, and Zootropolis (or Zootopia as it is called elsewhere) is a great example of a non-Pixar film that manages to reach the same heights that Pixar have been reaching fairly consistently for the last two decades. It isn't quite there, and at times you can definitely tell that it is a Disney film rather than a Pixar film - but for the most part, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the distinction is ceasing to matter.
Set in a world where anthropomorphic animals live in peace despite their historical predator/prey relationship, Zootropolis follows Judy Hopps as she starts her new job as a police officer in the Zootropolis Police Department. But as the department's first and only bunny officer she is under-utilised and looked down upon - until a missing persons case gives her a chance to prove herself to the rest of the police force.
It doesn't take long to see that much of Zootropolis is an allegory for not just racism but the different forms it can take, such as a lack of opportunities based on harmful stereotypes or the more immediately dangerous idea that some people are simply less advanced and more prone to violence than others. In Zootropolis, the latter manifests itself as an outbreak of predators "going savage" and reverting to their pre-evolved state of mind - causing the majority prey population of Zootropolis to begin to fear them.
It's an allegory that breaks down under scrutiny thanks to the simple fact that prey are obviously well within their rights to be afraid of predators, but within the context that Zootropolis provides it works just fine, and is used to great effect. The species-ism is uncomfortably recognisable in Zootropolis, whether it be a mother pig holding her child closer when a tiger boards the subway or some well-meaning bunny parents warning their daughter to watch out for foxes thanks to their own prejudices - we've all seen people act like this, and the fact that Zootropolis' doesn't make it's species-ism cartoonishly obvious or something unique to "just the bad guys" is one of two things that make it well worth seeing.
The other being that simply put, Zootropolis is a ton of fun. It takes on the structure of a buddy movie for the most part and it works brilliantly, many of the films best moments coming from the interactions between our two main characters as they grow closer. Both Judy Hopps and her reluctant partner Nicholas P. Wilde are interesting, believable and well-developed characters, fully realised by strong character arcs and some great voice acting from Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman respectively, and the same can be said about the entire supporting cast too - particularly Idris Elba's Chief Bogo, who made me laugh out loud multiple times and serves the film well as an antagonist who isn't actually a bad guy.
There are some flaws of course, ones mostly relating to the ways in which Zootropolis fails to totally escape it's status as a non-Pixar Disney animated film (such as the appearance and semi-frequent reappearance of a character voiced by pop-singer Shakira and one of her songs, or the ham-fisted references to pop-culture that are littered throughout), but no movie is perfect. As such, we'll just have to settle for really good - a funny, well-rounded, intelligent film for people of all ages that delivers everything you might expect from an animated film and much, much more.
Disclosure: The screening I attended was hosted and paid for by Den of Geek and Disney UK at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, UK.