Ever since Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has been engaging in a new Golden Era for themselves relating to their animation division. Following the financial and critical success of Ralph, the studio made a return to form with the extremely well-received princess story Tangled, and then far surpassed themselves with the instant classic Frozen. There was no way to match those heights with their next film, but they managed to stay strong with another home run in their first Marvel adaptation since buying the company, Big Hero 6. Now, Disney returns to its other popular form – the talking animal tale – with Zootopia.
A March release is unusual (though not unheard of) for a major Disney release. The delay of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur from 2014 until late 2015 wreaked havoc with Disney’s release schedule, giving us two Pixar films, last year, and no animated movies from Disney’s in-house team, as there was no way they were going to allow direct competition under their own umbrella. Seeing the weekend box office results, it’s easy to see that it made no difference – at least not on the negative end. Disney’s animation studio has successfully restored its reputation and people will see a Disney animated film no matter when it’s released. Good for them.
Happily, Zootopia doesn’t break the trust Disney has formed with the public. Just as Frozen broke the mold of the traditional princess story, so does Zootopia for the talking-animal genre. It’s not quite at the same level of quality of Frozen, but not much is, so that’s not meant to be a criticism. It’s really not that far behind.
Firstly, the animation and voice work very much is up to that level. The characters act as much with their body language and facial expressions as they do with their words and vocal inflections and it’s wondrous to behold. It takes a concerted group effort to bring any one of these characters to life and everyone involved goes above and beyond. I truly think that Disney Animation had surpassed every other animation studio (including Pixar) in terms of the technical aspects of the art and have claimed their spot at the top of that game where they once say comfortably.
Disney goes topical in Zootopia, tackling the ever-important topic of inclusion and racism. The film never gets heavy-handed about it, stopping short of flat-out telling the kids in the audience that half of them have a-hole, Trump-supporting parents. But, thankfully, it shouldn’t be lost on the parents, themselves, that an anthropomorphic bunny is trying to teach them something about life. This film is basically the anti-God’s Not Dead 2 (and OH, will there be a future post on THAT little piece of work). I love that.
Another layer to the film exists within the name of the titular city, Zootopia. All of the animals look at it through rose-colored glasses, imaging from the outside that it’s the perfect (utopian) animal existence they’ve always dreamed of. Much like our real-life existence, however, that theoretical utopia is hampered by the aforementioned closed-mindedness of certain inhabitants. So, how much of a difference can one bunny make? Therein lies the primary conflict of the film and the title is an ingenious reflection of the underlying themes.
The film is genuinely funny when it’s appropriate to be (Flash is awesome and Judy is charmingly funny, herself) and pretty exciting during a couple of well-constructed action scenes. And the city of Zootopia, itself, is gorgeous and expertly designed. I saw it in IMAX 3D and I didn’t want to blink for fear of letting a single frame go to waste.
I have no complaints or criticisms of Zootopia. Disney continues its recent trend of forgoing animated films for kids and, instead, making animated films for everyone. With copious surface-level entertainment buoyed by thoughtful subtext and depth and combined with masterful technical wizardry, Disney has once again thrown down the gauntlet to the other animation studious and practically dared them to step up to their challenge. We’ll see if they do with The Secret Lives of Pets and Finding Dory, later this year.