Starring (voices): Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, J.K. Simmons, Don Lake, Bonnie Hunt
Rated PG for Some Thematic Elements, Rude Humor and Action
Hollywood, for whatever reason, consistently underestimates the intelligence and imagination of their audience, especially in kids' movies. How else do you explain something as jaw-droppingly stupid and inane as "Norm of the North?" Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki in particular have bucked the trend, releasing movies that recognize that the vast majority of kids who actually go to the movies are able to speak in full sentences. "Zootopia" adds to that list. The plot is sophisticated without being dense and is unafraid of eschewing formulas and easy payoffs in order to make a quick and easy buck. The filmmakers have worked hard to come up with new material and explore the possibilities of its premise.
The premise for "Zootopia" is gold. What kid hasn't wondered what it would be like if animals could walk, talk and were able to function like humans? It's a brilliant idea, and the filmmakers take full advantage of it. World-building, especially in a fantasy like this, is key in a movie like this, and the writers and directors do a splendid job setting the stage. Of course there is a suspension of disbelief, but the idea is so cool that even the most hardened cynic will have little trouble buying into it for a little less than 2 hours.
Judy Hops (Goodwin) is a bunny from a farming town. All she wants to be is a cop in Zootopia, where anything is possible. Her parents (Lake and Hunt) advise her against this, believing that there is no place for a bunny in such an important job. But Judy is undaunted and after sailing through the academy at the top of her class, she sets out to make her dream come true. When she gets there on her first day, her commanding officer, Chief Bogo (Elba), assigns her to the important task of...meter maid. Judy pushes herself to perfection, believing that her hard work will pay off. It doesn't, and when she confronts Bogo about being sidelined instead of solving a series of missing persons cases, he reluctantly gives it to her. The catch is that she has to solve it within 48 hours, or else she gets the boot. Her only lead is a street hustling fox named Nick Wilde (Bateman), who only agrees to help him after she turns the tables on him in a scene that is so clever and funny that it garnered applause from the audience I attended it with...started by me).
While "Zootopia" is rightfully classified as a comedy, that doesn't mean that it doesn't deal with mature themes. Most prominent is the social and emotional price of stereotypes. Trust between friends is also an important part of the film. These aren't revolutionary ideas, nor are they new for kid's movies. But they are dealt with honestly, and the characters are strong enough to sell it. Betty and Nick lend weight and pathos to the film and its themes.
Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are in top form as Judy and Nick. They understand the concept of comic timing and character creation. Judy has pluck and spunk while Nick is sly and evasive, however both have their reasons for being the way they are. More importantly, they have chemistry. We like them both and we like them more together. Everyone else fills in their roles admirably, but this is really a two character show.
The film deals with adult themes, but they are handled in such a way that not even the prudish MPAA minded. There's a hilarious sequence where Judy and Nick enter into a "nude" spa and a fairly obvious reference to "Breaking Bad." However it must be said that none of this is in any way kid-unfriendly. It's all played for laughs. There's also a reference to "The Godfather," which is funnier in the film than it is in the trailer.
It would have been far too easy for the filmmakers to sell the film exclusively on its premise. It's dynamite enough that they would easily have made just as much money, but they cared enough to go the extra mile and make something truly special. And for that I will be eternally grateful. We still have a few months to go before "Finding Dory," but I would be very surprised if another film tops this for the best animated film of the year.