Release date: 25 March
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Starring: Voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba
Sometimes Disney’s sense of timing is immaculate – and this is one of them. Its latest animation, “Zootropolis” is aiming to be the big family film for next month’s Easter holidays in the UK. But there’s more. Its post-Oscar timing makes the most of the controversy that’s stuck to this year’s Academy Awards like glue and will, no doubt, cling on for some time to come. Because – and this is no detriment to the film – this is Disney’s diversity movie.
In a world populated by anthropomorphic animals – there’s not a human in sight – young rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) leaves her carrot farm home to become the first rabbit officer in the ZPD (Zootropolis Police Department). But the fact that she’s small, female and a rabbit means she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms by water buffalo Chief Bogo (the voice of Idris Elba). Assigned to parking duty, she still manages to get involved in a missing persons – sorry, animal – case and, helped by a scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), she’s soon untangling a conspiracy that goes right to the top.
Which was why the film’s other title, “Zootopia”, wasn’t such a good choice and is only being used in a handful of countries. The city isn’t idyllic: it’s like any other, with a mixed bag of residents, some law abiding and some not. They all live in different climate zones, such as the tundra and the rainforest, according to their species. But hang on a minute! From a distance, the city looks rather familiar. Like the one in “Tomorrowland:A World Beyond”, with its shiny skyscrapers in different shapes and sizes. And that resemblance goes even further, because Judy believes that anybody can be anything they want to be, a loud echo of the Tomorrowland philosophy. It’s one that Nick tries to deflate as his experience of life is rather different. Which one is right? You get just one guess…
So, this is Disney’s diversity film. The thread that holds the story together is that the animals judge and discriminate against each other on the grounds of species. The biggest prejudice is against predators – big cats, foxes, wolves – whose instincts have been tamed. They now live side by side with animals they would have preyed upon, but the suspicion and antagonism is still there. Equally, predators don’t think much of the animals from more docile species, like rabbits, sloths (more of them in a moment) and deer. No wonder Judy finds it difficult to become a cop, despite the latest initiative from Mayor Lionheart (the voice of J K Simmons) to introduce more mammals into the police force.
That said, some of the animals completely live up to their stereotypes and way out in front on that score are the sloths. A contradiction? Bear with me …..They staff the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), where Judy and Nick go to find some essential information and the main man – sorry, sloth – is Flash (voiced by Raymond S Persi). They get the information they need, but it takes all day. Literally. It’s dark when they leave the building. Flash is, it has to be said, one of the film’s highlights – terribly good natured but desperately and frustratingly slow at anything and everything he does, even when he speaks. He never speeds up for anything and comes equipped with a “You Want It When?” mug. For Judy, he’s maddening. For the audience, he’s utterly adorable and gloriously funny.
As a PG movie, “Zootropolis” is very much for kids and their parents, yet there’s a serious probability that much of the humour will go straight over the youngsters’ heads. They won’t have a problem with the action and the cute factor, especially as far as the bunnies are concerned, but there’s an awful lot in this one that’s aimed squarely at adults – and movie going adults at that. Take the scene in the naturist club. There’s bears scratching their backs with uprooted palm trees. Familiar? Yes, it’s straight out of Disney’s 1967 “Jungle Book”. There’s throwaway references to other Disney films, Frozen especially, and comic books based on other Disney titles. Pig Hero 6, anybody? But biggest and best of all is a prolonged pastiche of Vito Corleone, known here as Mr Big. He’s actually a tiny shrew. Voiced by Maurice LaMarche, he sounds deliciously like Brando’s patriarch but, better still, the animators get the gestures and movement spot on. All he lacks is a cat – for obvious reasons!
There is a question mark hanging over Disney’s move into diversity, though. The cast list looks remarkably white – 14 out of the 20 main speaking parts, in fact. Admittedly, it’s an improvement on this year’s Oscars, but the words ‘lip service’ start coming to mind and it undermines the whole premise of the film. True, “Zootropolis” doesn’t have the thought-provoking, reflective qualities of “Inside Out” but it’s highly enjoyable and will revolutionise the image of the sloth. It can’t fail to do well at the box office either, but interestingly the prospect of a sequel isn’t dangled at the end. A lack of confidence on the part of Disney? Surely not…