Review: ‘Zootopia’ is more rooted in the zeitgeist than typical Disney animation

One of the most interesting things about Walt Disney Feature Animation is the way it has evolved over the course of its history from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to today. There are such distinct eras in its development, such major shifts in creative energy, such giant peaks and valleys, that even the worst moments in its history are worth study for animation fans. I wish Disney would embrace their entire history and not just their hits, because there is so much to learn from films like Song Of The South or The Black Cauldron. Right now, though, they have hit a stride that is admirable, and Zootopia is another triumph for the current version of the studio following films like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6.

First and foremost, Zootopia is a reminder of just how beautiful animated films can be. Holy cow, this thing is almost hallucinatory. Set in a world where both predator and prey have learned to live together, Zootopia itself is a city divided into impossible sectors, with Tundra Town right next to Sahara Square, both of them adjoining a rain forest area and an entire miniature city just for creatures the size of mice. It's like the most insane safari park in the world, but with walking talking animals, one of which is new to the city, pursuing her lifelong dream of being the first rabbit cop.

Ginnifer Goodwin plays Judy Hopps, and it's a pretty great match of actor and animated character. Her relentless optimism comes from a belief in Zootopia's underlying belief that anyone can be anything they want, and the film takes a surprisingly layered look at whether that idea is true or not. One of the last things we like to admit in modern culture is that there are limitations each of us have, and that perhaps we are not all capable of being anything without restriction. Trying to deal with those ideas in a way that is accessible to all audiences is incredibly difficult, and that's part of what impressed me about about the work done by the terrific creative team led by directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore with co-director Jared Bush. The screenplay's credited to Bush and Phil Johnston, and story material is credited to Howard, Bush, Moore, Johnston, and Jennifer Lee. I'm always amazed at how cohesive a film feels when that many people work on the script and the story, but it makes sense. You take a brain trust like that, you throw as many good ideas as you can at a story, and you pick the very best of it to keep.

Zootopia is, at its heart, a mystery. As Judy reports to work, finally having graduated from the police academy, she is frustrated because she is assigned to work traffic. Her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), clearly has no faith in her abilities, and resents having to take on what he sees as a token hiring. One of the things that makes this feel different than most Disney films is how overtly of-the-moment it is, and it surprised me in that regard. Disney's not really a hot-button kind of company. Look at the films that are considered the original Disney classics. Bambi. Dumbo. Snow White. Cinderella. Robin Hood. Jungle Book. Pinocchio. Fantasia. These are films that feel very timeless, stories that aren't particularly addressing the social landscape of when they were made. They can't help but reflect it at times, and certainly if you go through all of their films in order, you see a slowly evolving world in the attitudes represented in the films. But this is something altogether different, a film that steers headlong into the current zeitgeist discussing racial profiling, how we accomplish social diversity, and the way we play into the roles we are assigned by our birth. I can't think of many live-action films that would be able to juggle those ideas in a piece of entertainment, much less one that is accessible to audiences of all ages. So while it feels like a real change from what we're used to from Disney, it's not an unpleasant change. Just a surprising one.

When Judy is given a chance to work a real case, one in a serious of mysterious mammal disappearances, she has only one clue to follow, involving a wise-ass con man fox named Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman. As with any film like this, much of the success or failure rests on there being some sort of genuine chemistry between Judy and Nick, and this film nails it. Their relationship develops in a smart story-driven way, but never at the sacrifice of character, and because it balances both, the film lands its thematic punches and delivers a real emotional experience as well. Actors like Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, and Nate Torrence all contribute terrific work, and as crazy as the design of the world is, Zootopia ends up feeling like a genuine place. There's a vibrancy to it that runs through everything from the pace of the storytelling to the background details of the world in which the story takes place.

I've read reviews and think pieces that attribute the turn-around at WDFA over the last few years to John Lasseter's increased role in the company, but I think that's reductive. The truth is simpler than that: Disney has a terrific creative team working to develop these movies, and their process is paying off in a voice that has me excited to see the new films from the studio every time out. If they're going to start tackling more adult material in the way they handle it here, then I'm even more engaged. I think they do a good job here of handling a complex idea (we are all given certain limitations that are part of who we are, but we also have choices to make about how much we let those limitations define us) and of also, first and foremost, entertaining. I expected the entertainment to work, but even so, I was impressed by both the artistry used to bring things to life on the technical side and the degree of finely-tuned thought it took to write something this dense. If you look at how each film from this evolving group has been built, from Bolt through now, it is clear that this studio is working as well right now as it ever has, and all involved have every right to be excited about the future.

Zootopia opens everywhere on Friday.