When I got out of my first viewing of Zootopia, I raved about how Pixar had done it again. A little while later, a friend informed me that it was not a Pixar Studios film but actually a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. With some great recent films like Wreck-It-Ralph and Big Hero 6, I shouldn’t have been so surprised; but, I’d been conditioned by films like Planes to believe Walt Disney Animation Studios to be far inferior to Pixar Studios (a film actually from DisneyToon Studios, whom I realized was a wholly different Disney studio and thankfully has shifted focus to Playhouse Disney titles, leaving the two more accomplished studios to handle all of the major features). It was apparently easy to forget that the studio has been releasing solid juggernauts like Frozen when the shelves are so cluttered with likes of Bolt, Meet the Robinsons, and Treasure Planet.
The current streak of films from the studio is actually extremely strong. Starting in 2010, each release has been a solid one: Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and now Zootopia. Even the weakest of this lot is better than most animated films being released from anyone else out there (other than Pixar and, perhaps, Dreamworks). In fact, from 2012’s Wreck-It-Ralph on, each of these titles has been not only solid, but likely the best animated releases of their respective years. So, my initial surprise that Zootopia wasn’t from Pixar was at least a bit misguided.
Having seen the film twice in theaters with my children, the Blu-ray experience was my third viewing of the film (as well as my less-than-voluntary fourth and fifth viewings, as my children like to replay films quite a bit). While many films become tiresome after a few watches, especially children and family features, it was not the case with this animated animal caper. Instead, with each viewing of Zootopia, the animation has looked sharper, the screenplay has felt stronger, and the message continues to become more potent.
Let’s start with the animation. Rendering convincing and compelling anthropomorphic animals isn’t exactly the easiest task in the computer animation world. Think about the work that goes into generating realistic fur and hair, while mimicking both the mannerisms of people and the animals in the film. A character like the bunny rabbit cop Judy Hops requires combining the characteristics of a cute and fuzzy little bunny rabbit with the idiosyncrasies of a young woman, specifically one trying to present as worthy of being “one of the guys”. This is a delicate balance that few animators really achieve. The Walt Disney team not only hits the mark with this task, but their attention to detail is incredible. There is great realism to the animals, while the film is still able to maintain a classic animated feel and not jump into becoming “too real”. Each viewing shows more and more detail; and, I expect this to continue to happen with future viewings of the film, as well.
The screenplay is great. One of the tests that I try to run an animated feature through in my head is looking at whether or not the film could hold up if the animated leads were all replaced with actual actors. So, in the case of Zootopia, this test consists of considering whether or not this could simply be a traditional buddy cop caper and still hold together as a coherent and strong screenplay. The film passes the test with flying colors. All of the needed elements for a good buddy cop film are here and they are done well. One could replace the mammals with men and women and still have a great story. The fantasy elements and reality based elements are in a perfect balance. Some moments are a tad predictable, but never distractingly so. In fact, there are far more clever and interesting moments and scenarios in the film than anything generic. The film is well written, with great action and comedy. It really leaves little to be desired in this regard.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film packs one hell of a powerful message. After last week’s horrible national events that led to the deaths of two innocent black men and a group of policemen whom were keeping order and protecting people at a peaceful protest, the message of not allowing labels to define people is as important as it’s ever been. The prey and predators, as well as all of the subsets of mammals within both categories, represent a wide variety of people in our society. The film really tackles how the labels placed all of us can be extremely dangerous, while being far too simplistic to define who we are as individuals. This message is far more developed in the film than can be described in a brief paragraph or two, but it’s a message that I, for one, am grateful can be taught to my children through an extremely entertaining film.
Zootopia is available now via DVD, Blu-ray, and every major VOD outlet. The Blu-ray package includes several great behinds the scenes featurettes that make it the best choice among purchasing options. My personal favorites among these are the deleted characters and the feature that highlights the process of how the story morphed from one story to a completely different one.