“Zootopia” (2016) brings Disney to another level

by Andrew Kingsley | 5/25/16 5:01pm

Disney returns to the successful world of anthropomorphic animals (“Robin Hood” (1973) and “Chicken Run” (2000)) with their 55th animated feature film, “Zootopia” (2016).

Like the best animated films, “Zootopia” creates a world all its own, where half the pleasure and drive of the film is exploring the wondrous corners of the creative universe. Since English brims with animal analogies — slow as a sloth, memory of an elephant, clever as a fox — Disney had particular fun shaping this mammalian metropolis which feels uncannily close to home.

Like “Finding Nemo” (2003) on land with a police twist, “Zootopia” centers on Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a spunky rabbit looking to make it big in the epic, eponymous city and track down a criminal mastermind. Judy starts out on her family’s farm, dreaming of cops and robbers more than carrots.

Like a leporine Mulan, Judy leaves her comfortable idyll and infiltrates the all-guys club of the police academy, only to quickly become their top recruit. Brimming with anticipation and promise, Judy enters the shimmering wonderland of Zootopia, where predators and prey live in complete harmony.

Similar to San Fransokyo, the setting of “Big Hero 6” (2014), Disney indulges in the colorful, kaleidoscopic spectacle that is Zootopia, with Judy’s wide-eyed entrance through its deserts, rain forest and arctic sectors rivaling our own. But reality quickly sinks in when she’s assigned meter maid duty and forced to bear the unrelenting vitriol of her victims.

After being hustled by the cunning fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy returns the favor and enlists his guile and dry wit to help unravel the city’s crisis, in which predators are becoming savage killers again.

A few notes made the film stand out from typical Disney fare. There was a particular patience to the film’s humor that rarely exists in PG films. Just watch the trailer; it’s one joke dragged out for three minutes — that’s incredibly risky for your film’s draw.

Certain gags are just given a little more time to set up, the frame left empty for just a split second longer to build anticipation. Also, despite the immensity of Zootopia’s space, the diegesis felt incredibly tight, with bit characters weaving in and out at the right moments to spark humor.

Finally, the writers milk this mammalian world for all its potential. From literally calling out the elephant in the room to the sloth-run DMV, the film revels in human parallels and word play.

The film has particular relevance to graduating seniors. Always the pragmatists, Judy’s parents dole out the sage advice, “It’s good to have dreams just so long as you don’t believe too much of them.” The humble rabbit destined to be a carrot farmer like her 200-some siblings decides to enter the force.

Her apartment, a parody of the freshman nightmare, finds her alone, eating microwave dinners to the dulcet tones of her fratty neighbors. While most of us won’t bring down a corrupt government within four days of entering campus, the film appeals to all ages and rivals the universality of some Pixar favorites.

I also found the film particularly analogous to current events. Amid a culture of excessive police violence and “Blue Lives Matter” counter-campaigns, Disney attempts to be a mediator, indoctrinating the new generations of officers and citizens with its utopian vision. In a time when the prejudicial fears of police have killed innocent African Americans, “Zootopia” frames the police as instigators of racial difference and panic. Mothers move their children from the tiger on the subway while protesters argue for the lives of the predators. After the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray shootings, our country became chaotic, the media a zoo, in which people fought for the basic human right of not being shot down like animals.

Behind an anthropomorphic, buddy cop veil, Disney has produced a fairly socially relevant film. It’s like Black Lives Matter-lite for children. While it packs in the usual bumper sticker sentimentality, “Zootopia” transcends traditional moralism and Disney’s industrial complex to make a highly socially conscious film. Bring the kids for the mammals, but make sure to stay for the message.

Rating: 10/10

“Zootopia” is playing at the Nugget Theaters today at 4:30 p.m. and 6:50 p.m.