‘Zootopia’

Zootopia

THE COMEDIAN STEWART LEE dedicated the entirety of a half-hour episode of his television show, Comedy Vehicle, to satire, which he defined, jokingly, as “like here… but there’s animals in it.”

Lee was, of course, satirising satire itself, but the success of fiction in which the creator uses the animal world to hold a mirror to our human selves, from Animal Farm to Planet of the Apes, is, in part, down to its intrinsic capacity to express difficult or complex ideas in an entertaining and accessible way.

Such is the case with Disney’s lively new animated film, Zootopia, a part buddy-cop movie, part social satire, set in a bright and vibrant mammalian city where animals are anthropomorphised enough to permit directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore to riff on mankind’s various foibles with clear relish.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the daughter of carrot farmers from the town of Bunnyburrow (population to 81.5million-odd and rapidly rising, for obvious reasons) is the first rabbit to become a police officer in the glorious multi-species city of Zootopia, where predators and prey, having evolved beyond their savage instincts, live in harmony.

But Jesse finds upon graduating from the police academy that the ZPD is not all that she expected, and is dismayed to be assigned to parking-ticket duty by Idris Elba’s chief of police, Bogo, a Cape buffalo. The ever-optimistic Jesse shrugs off her disappointment and soon finds herself a worthy mission–to track down a missing otter–for which she requires the services of a wily con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

The city of Zootopia is wonderfully inventive, comprising zoogeographical districts like the freezing “Tundratown” and the scaled-down “Little Rodentia”, all of them connected by bullet train. Suited hippos arrive to work via water-slide as chipmunks prepare freshly squeezed acacia juice for giraffes. Rodents, hilariously, stream out of a building bearing the sign “Lemming Brothers Bank” and there isn’t a human in sight to ruin everything. The city’s motto is, “Anyone can be anything.”

But can anyone be anything? The conflict between ideals and reality lends the satire to this fantasy buddy-cop flick, in which multiculturalism, inclusiveness and prejudice–both accidental and deliberate–are not spared the good-natured examination of the seven-person story team. Officer Hopps is herself victim to a sort of everyday “bunnyism” while her wise-cracking sidekick Nick is refused service at an elephant-run ice cream café. Though Zootopia has a utopian image to the outside world, received ideas about the members of the animal kingdom influence which positions they come to hold–hence a lion is the city mayor and an intimidating buffalo is the chief of police. Zootopia is politically and socially apposite, but inventive and funny enough to keep it from wandering too far into the realms of moralism or sentimentality.

Naturally the trailer does away with some of the best gags (“We need to address the elephant in the room. Francine? Happy birthday.”) but there is no shortage of first-rate verbal and physical comic flourishes. There is a scene involving a pocket-sized rodent crime boss, Mr. Big, during which I laughed so hard my sides began to hurt, and Judy and Nick’s visit to the vehicle-registration bureau, which is manned, of course, by sloths, is pitch-perfect, and a demonstration that with good comic timing even the very predictable may be riotously funny.

There is a diligence that goes into the balancing of the human attributes of Zootopia’s residents with the animalistic ones –a stamping foot here, a twitching nose there–that is to the credit of a confident and imaginative animating team. The energetic vocal performances of Goodwin and Bateman complement beautifully the liveliness of their characters and the world around them.

The film is as much an exhortation to individuality and a celebration of eclecticism as it is a riff on society’s shortfalls, all of it wrapped up in a fun buddy-cop caper and expressed in a way that the film’s predominantly young audience can understand. This is a first-rate film, and a must-watch.

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