How many films does it take before we can call it another Disney renaissance? Walt Disney Animation Studios are on a terrific run of computer animated features, from Bolt to Tangled to Wreck It Ralph to Frozen to Big Hero 6, and that’s without even counting delightful 2D outliers like The Princess And The Frog and Winnie The Pooh. The studio’s latest, Zootropolis, is in keeping with this run in a number of ways, but on top of that, it’s maybe the most timely film that the House Of Mouse has ever produced.
Zootropolis is a metropolis full of evolved mammals, where predators and prey co-exist with one another in relative harmony in neighbouring habitats – picture it as a New York full of animals, with a Harlem tundra and a Brooklyn rainforest and so on. A few miles away in the rural town of Bunnyburrow, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has always dreamed of being the Zootropolis police department’s first bunny officer and through her uncommon determination, she graduates at the top of her class in police academy.
However, when she’s assigned to the ZPD on a diversity programme introduced by Mayor Lionheart (JK Simmons), her bull-headed boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) summarily consigns her to traffic duty. Desperate for a shot to prove herself, she’s given a 48 hour deadline on a troubling missing persons case and with the reluctant help of hustling fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy discovers a threat to the city and their entire way of life.
By our count, this is only the third Disney film that features no human characters whatsoever, after Robin Hood and The Lion King. Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush don’t throw back to either of those films, but rather use the setting to make a hilarious and surprisingly topical point about how different people interact in a mammalian boiling pot.
There are shades of the classic mismatched buddy movie template in here, particularly Midnight Run, but it doesn’t just style itself after the genre. This is the most overtly comedic Disney movie in a long, long time and it’s by far the funniest film of the year so far. The film is so dense with sight gags and one-liners that we could see it getting even better on repeat viewings.
One of the trailers shows only one of the funniest scenes in the film, a show-stopping scene at the sloth-run Department of Mammal Vehicles, in which Judy’s manic energy is drastically contrasted with a slow-talking sloth called Flash. The scene is just as funny in context and if that’s what gets you in the cinema, it’s a pretty good meter for the comedy that runs throughout the movie.
Following on from Big Hero 6‘s San Fransokyo, the film also makes the most of yet another mashed-up locale – an early aerial shot shows off the true scope and diversity of Zootropolis’ environment, but is then demonstrated by the mad, almost trippy adjustments in scale between districts, specifically in a bravura foot chase sequence between Hopps and a weaselly perp.
What starts as a dangerous race between the two critters, dodging massive hooves and paws, becomes something out of a monster movie as they cross the boundaries of the rodent district. In this and other scenes, the film is fast and funny enough to match its big (and small) ideas and there’s an embarrassment of riches to enjoy herein.
So, it’s colourful and energetic throughout, but its world building also opens up into a much bigger thematic point in the second half of the film. At a point where frothier films would be more concerned about winding down, we’re given a scene in which a police officer is put on the spot by the press and their response sounds uncannily like some of the soundbites coming out of certain real life police departments of late. The word ‘savage’ has different connotations in a world full of animals, but as panic and mistrust ensues in the city, it’s the basis of a really smart allegory too.
You can accuse us of reading too much into this if you like, but the point and purpose of this scene seems crystal clear in context too, particularly next to the film’s larger theme of equality. It bubbles up quietly until this point- compared to living with 275 brothers and sisters in Bunnyburrow, Judy is very much a minority in the big city – but the way in which the film tackles prejudice head-on from this point onwards is, frankly, quite ballsy for a Disney-produced buddy cop comedy with talking animals in it.
In that regard, it’s definitely a movie for the moment and one with a valuable message to impart, even if it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of its final statement – the film sort of wants to have Judy both ways in terms of the lesson about tolerance and equality and that chimes awkwardly at the end. Still, the lack of an obvious Fox News gag in this moment, when the rest of the film has more rabbit-y wordplay and sight gags than any since The Curse Of The Wererabbit, you can tell it’s sincere.
As with the other recent films we mentioned, it keeps the real antagonist under wraps for a while and anyone who thought that Big Hero 6 was a tad predictable might find that the same is true of this one. It’s in keeping with the cop movie structure that it’s a bit more of a whodunnit, but even though the why takes precedence over the who, we’ve been wanting for a classical Disney villain since Tangled.
There’s also a self-referential streak that’s entirely atypical of Disney. We’re not talking about Easter Eggs in the background, like a Scar-skin fur in Hercules or Belle in the crowd in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame – these are some seriously blatant winks at the audience. It peaks with a knockout jab at Frozen from a no-nonsense Bogo (brilliantly delivered by Elba, who’s on top form here), but there are plenty more hat-tips to their last few films and even their upcoming slate along the way. It’s a little self-indulgent, but they’re excusable because they’re mostly very funny – it’s not as arch as Deadpool, but it’s as close as Disney aficionados are likely to get, and perhaps more than they want too.
If you’re expecting something light and colourful from Zootropolis, it delivers with bells on, but the attempt to include something more timely, from a studio that specialises in timeless stories, is especially admirable. It repeats some of the tropes of the most recent films by the studio, but Disney’s CG renaissance shows no sign of slowing down in this relentlessly funny escapade.
Zootropolis is in UK cinemas from 25th March.
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