Let's get one thing straight: I freakin' love Disney. Specifically, Disney animation (a major part of my childhood and millions of other '90s kids) has such a fascinating history and important place in pop culture, and its impact on the medium is unprecedented. How many animation breakthroughs weren't in some way pioneered by Disney or under Disney's inspiration? Despite a rollercoaster of quality over the past decade, the studio has produced a number of real gems as of late (John Lasseter's influence on the studio undoubtedly driving that). The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 are all good-to-great movies that have cemented Disney's place in the feature animation industry and have proven that the studio's pretty much gotten its mojo back. So how does their newest film, Zootopia, hold up? Previews made it extremely hard to tell, most of the them focusing on a sloth joke that was funny, but told us next to nothing about how the story. And honestly, thank God for that, because Zootopia is a movie that should be viewed with as little beforehand information as possible. The writing is stellar, the characters are instantly lovable, and the animation is as good as CGI can get. Yeah, that's a double-edged compliment, but more on that later.
Zootopia is absolutely fantastic. Its characters are strong and well-developed, there's plenty of solid world-building, and the mystery plot is genuinely compelling. If the script occasionally falls back on a cliche, it often bounces back with something creative or even turns what you thought was something generic right on its head. What I've seen the majority of critics focus on is the extra layer of depth the film offers in terms of its social commentary, mainly on modern American racism and sexism. But it doesn't become "Disney's after school special" at any point; it treats the audience with respect and integrates its themes seamlessly into the narrative. Almost seamlessly, anyway. In fact, there are probably one too many lines that punch you square in the face with the subtext ("I'm not just some token bunny... It's only ok for bunnies to call each other 'cute..' "), but there are others that are pretty subtle and more thought-provoking.
This bunny and fox duo is all kinds of great. Judy and Nick have great chemistry, and the side characters are fleshed out as well. I like that the movie pulls the villain out from under the rug (as did Frozen), and that the motivations were justified and tied into the theme (huzzah!). The characters have unique challenges they have to overcome that have a real-world parallel, and I like that the film doesn't simplify the problem and act like it has all the definitive answers. The lesson here isn't that "racism is wrong," a six-year-old could tell you that. The idea is that racism and stereotypes do exist, and it's how you deal with them that matters when they come your way. It makes you reflect on social norms and often points at how generally fucked up they are. But you know, fun for the whole family!
What also makes Zootopia stand out is how hilarious and gag-filled the world is while still being functional. There are climate zones for the various animals, each more creative than the last. There's even a detour into "Little Rodentia," a miniature-sized town for rodents. Tracking down a missing person in this city was a genius move by screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, because it gives an excuse for Judy and Nick to explore every part of Zootopia for the benefit of the audience while feeling totally organic. It's all brought to life using gorgeous, glossy CG animation that astounds and delights with its attention to detail, and the animal fur seems like you could reach out and touch it. And yet... I really wish it had been done with hand-drawn animation. I think it would have lended the movie a charm that it almost has, but there's a sterility to CG animation that just comes with the territory. It worked perfectly for Frozen (I wouldn't trade that ice for anything), but it wasn't really needed here.
Look at what could have been! Concept art by the film's character design supervisor, Cory Loftis.
Zootopia was directed by Bryon Howard and Rich Moore, who are responsible for many of the movies in this new Disney animation revival. Their penchant for slapstick humor is here in spurts, but the majority of the film's strength is in its dialogue and its action. There's a level of maturity in the writing, voice acting, and referential jokes that I really appreciated. Michael Giacchino provides the score, which is an ambitious with its mix of tribal music with jazz; it creates the perfect sound for a city populated by animals. I don't know if it's as AMAZING as The Incredibles or Up, but it's still pretty great.
What's not pretty great is the Shakira song "Try Everything," which would be tolerable if it only played once. But it plays twice; a bland, shallow pop song that maybe I wouldn't think twice about if this been a Dreamworks movie. But this is Disney, and given their track record for producing some of the best made-for-the-big-screen songs, this is extremely disappointing. Shakira also feels like a celebrity plug in a film that desperately didn't need it. And also... Shakira?
Other than that minor gripe, I absolutely loved Zootopia. The characters are so likeable (and even a little tragic), the story is layered and well-paced, and world is realized to its fullest extent. There are plot twists that dance on the edge of contrived, but are damn-near genius compared to most other films geared towards kids and families. But that's the beauty of Disney animation; it's one of the only forms of entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by anybody of any age. Zootopia purposefully dates itself in terms of its technology and pop-culture references, but its story, characters, and themes are nothing but timeless.