Film, Reviews, Screen

Zootopia movie review: furry friends with positive messages

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The best reviewed film to arrive in cinemas so far in 2016 is not a costume drama or a period piece featuring Cate Blanchett looking sultry. It is actually a computer animated talking animals movie, based in a no-humans alternate universe where all creatures great and small co-exist irrespective of their place on the food chain.
They live peacefully, at least when it comes to straight-out violence. But in the bustling metropolis of Disney’s Zootopia considerable discrimination exists between species.
The film’s quest to explore what form this might take and how it could meaningfully reflect the real world we live in goes some way in explaining an enthusiastic-and-then-some response from critics, who have collectively assigned it a whopping 99% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating.
The protagonist is wannabe crime fighter Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) who escapes a quiet provincial life to go to the Big Smoke and take on bad guys. Hopps is a bunny rabbit; the first to ever graduate from the Police Academy.
When her doting parents prep her on what to expect when she arrives in Zootopia, they warn her of other animals and implore her to be vigilant. Particularly of foxes, they say, illustrating the point by reminding Hopps of a specific fox that gave her grief when she was younger.
Hopps shoots back: that fox “was a jerk who just happened to be a fox, I know plenty of bunnies who are jerks” — an early indication of the kind of positive messages the film’s three directors (Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush) have in mind. The key word here is xenophobia; a core subject that belies the film’s glossy surfaces.
Read our interview with Sydney character animator Philip To on making Zootopia 
It’s not a subject the filmmakers simplify into rudimentary take-home messages. Hopps, who is initially not taken seriously as a cop and relegated to duties as a parking inspector, quickly discovers that the kinds of stereotypes she would denounce as offensively simplistic sometimes prove to be true.
For example, foxes — particularly street-wise hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) — can be exceptionally cunning and sloths can be extremely slow. In a delightful touch, the latter animals are employees of the DMV, short for Department of Mammal Vehicles. They sure don’t work fast: stamping a form or stapling a bunch of papers takes a sloth the better part of a minute, let alone operating a computer or processing forms.
What kind of creature could better highlight the pains of dealing with government bureaucracy? Turtles presumably toil away somewhere off-frame, processing birth certificates and passports.
Another great small touch (small in more than a single sense) arrives when Hopps goes in hot pursuit of a thieving weasel. She chases him through Little Rodentia, where mice and rodents live.
For the petrified little creatures going about their business in this tiny metropolis-within-a-metropolis, complete with skyscapers and teensy-weensy vehicles, Hopps and the weasel are like feuding Godzillas tearing apart the streets. It’s a commentary on how each of us can unwittingly become villains in another specie’s monster movie.
After Hopps achieves hard-earned credibility and is assigned a tough case, Zootopia finds its villains in politics and positions of authority. It becomes almost noir-like, something akin to a candy-coloured Chinatown where power corrupts and trails of guilt lead all the way to the top.
There are other talking point pit-stops on the way, including reflections on media sensationalism and the influence of witch hunting crowds who protest the very existence of people (or creatures) different to themselves.
Both those ideas informed major parts of the obese caped crusader epic Batman v Superman. How amusing that beefed-up superheroes have been beaten by characters who, if one were to judge them purely by their appearance on the posters, look like they’ve been custom-made for Happy Meal campaigns. The Dark Knight and the son of Jor-El can huff and puff all they like; they’ve been trounced by an adorable little bunny and her friends.
Previously reviewed by Luke Buckmaster:
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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