Disney's "Zootopia" Is As Confused As It Is Eye-Catching

The funny thing about Walt Disney Animation Studio’s “Zootopia” is that it isn’t that funny, or straightforward, or anything moviegoers have come to associate with the Disney brand. Its familiarity begins and ends with its application of anthropomorphized animal characters, all inhabiting a movie that immediately parachutes into convoluted cop drama with tatters of every other conceivable genre.

A silver lining: the visuals are inarguably the outfit’s most accomplished to date, putting the snowy peaks of “Frozen” and the cotton candy pomp of “Wreck-It Ralph” to shame (not to mention the studio’s lovely but quaint hand-drawn animation of old). The voice acting is top notch, too, led by Ginnifer Goodwin as trailblazing bunny cop Judy Hopps and Jason Bateman as thieving fox Nick Wilde.

But if the film is superficially great, a plastered-over screenplay lurks just beneath, poking its ugly head out early and often.

Hopps’ passage from young one with lofty dreams of becoming the first rabbit police officer to actual city cop is vaguely endearing. Nick’s arc from street hustler to unwilling (and then willing) ally of Judy is, too, until both characters stop progressing, yielding to a muddled detective yarn full of cobwebbed “Godfather” jokes and boulder-heavy social commentary.

Zootopia – city and movie both – are ideals of fairness and progress, a cosmopolitan oasis looked to by hopeful outsiders as to what’s possible. But once inside, it becomes clear to Judy (our proxy) that it isn’t that at all – city and movie both.

Had the writers and directors delivered their notes of inclusiveness and acceptance with a lighter touch, “Zootopia” might have come off as considerably less cumbersome. But its themes aren’t just inherent in its plot. They are its plot, resulting in every single word and action being carried out in service of a noble but overcooked social agenda that leaves little room for character development or genuine drama.

Even more awkwardly, the screenplay’s ideas of segregation and predators are jumbled, with the writers doing the exact thing they’re proselytizing against – generalizing – in service of a joke.

For example, in the world of Zootopia all DMV workers are sloths. Their lethargy might make kids laugh but it’s an odd abstraction that drags on far too long, magnifying the film’s too-long 110-minute running time.

It’s all remarkably complicated for what’s ostensibly a kids movie, wearing its scatterbrained screenplay like a heavy winter coat on a sticky summer day. And mileage for adults will predictably vary, requiring some lenience in terms of narrative coherence.

“Zootopia” is a fender bender between everything good and bad about animation – past, present, and likely future. While mostly endurable, it doesn’t hold up to any kind of narrative scrutiny, nor is it accessible enough to strike young kids as their new favorite movie. By the third time the writers makes a tired rabbit reproduction joke, you might be liable to agree.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: March 4, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Screenwriter: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Jenny Slate
MPAA Rating: PG (for some thematic elements, rude humor and action)