I think it has become abundantly clear that Pixar isn’t Disney’s only animated money maker. Recently Walt Disney Animated Studios has blown away the box office. It should be said that their films always make money, but their last three animated features have made just under $3 billion. Those films include 2013’s “Frozen”, 2014’s “Big Hero 6”, and now this year’s surprise mega-hit “Zootopia”.
“Zootopia” was predicted to perform well, but no one expected it to break numerous box office records. It shattered projections and has earned over $1 billion globally. Not only did people come out to see it, but most critics lauded it with some even calling it one of the best animated films ever made. That is hefty praise especially for a movie I could never fully embrace.
There are two sides to “Zootopia” that provoked two different reactions from me. Let’s start with the good. In part “Zootopia” is a fun, playful buddy cop film that also tells a touching story of a young bunny setting out to accomplish her dreams despite the numerous obstacles thrown her way. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Judy Hopps, a young country rabbit who sets out to accomplish her dream of being a police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia. But everyone tells her she can’t do it, she’s too small, that no rabbit has ever made the police force.
Judy presses on against a barrage of opposition, graduates from police academy, and lands a job at a Zootopia precinct. But even there she faces a bigotry that lands her on traffic duty. Themes of sexism and prejudice resonate and are handled smartly and effectively. When the film keeps this lean focus it can be surprisingly and subtly thought-provoking.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t maintain its subtlety. In fact it obliterates it. It becomes so ridiculously heavy-handed in its indictments of intolerance, prejudices, and stereotyping. It doesn’t allow for you to think about and chew on their message. It spells everything out in the most obvious ways. At times it feels like they are presenting political talking points instead of a movie script.
And this isn’t an issue found in scattered instances. It’s a drum the writers and directors beat over and over again. They don’t just hit you over the head with their social message. They bludgeon you to death with it. And the problem isn’t that they have a message. It’s that their lack of subtlety and tact subvert the power of it. It resonates early in the film. Later it begins to feel like a big lecture emanating from almost every pore of the story.
Thankfully we do find moments where we can catch our breath. The central relationship between Judy and a con-artist red fox named Nick (slickly voiced by Jason Bateman) is a lot of fun. There are also some really funny moments. A hysterical bit from the extended trailer involving sloths and the DMV is still laugh-out-loud hilarious. Also seeing Idris Elba playing a cape buffalo police chief is inherently funny.
Clearly “Zootopia” has several things going for it. The humor often hits its mark. Judy and Nick have a sparkling relationship. The deeper themes are provocative and absorbing when wisely explored. Negatively the animation doesn’t blow you away and things can occasionally get a little silly. But those aren’t the biggest problems. The collection of seven writers and two directors get so caught up in their statement that it nearly smothers the message. We aren’t allowed to glean much for ourselves or come to our own conclusions. Instead it becomes a relentless social politics lecture with a handful of breaks in between.