You just might like this one more than your kids

I don’t often see animated movies in theaters.  My nine-year-old nephew lives over 1,500 miles away and none of my close LA friends have kids.  And you never want to be the guy in your 30s watching a kids’ movie in a theater sans child.  You might as well wear a raincoat and fedora while you’re at it!  

Nevertheless, I enjoy them quite a bit when I eventually do get around to seeing them.  These days, the talents behind even the most disappointing animated films (looking at you, The Good Dinosaur) still know that the best formula for creating fun, family-geared animation is to make it as equally enjoyable for the kiddos as well as the grownups accompanying them.  And every now and then, there comes along one that adults might enjoy even more – The Incredibles, Up and Toy Story 3 all come to mind. Disney Animation now brings us Zootopia, a movie kids will mostly love because of the cute, talking animals, but their adult counterparts might appreciate even more with its subtle delivery of racial/gender equality messages and a Law and Order-style narrative approach.

zootopia - rhino

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The story revolves around Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny with only one lifelong dream: to be the first rabbit police officer of Zootopia, an animal city where predators and prey live civilized, human-like, everyday lives.  Zootopia’s inhabitants work blue and white collar jobs, have families and abide by laws enforced by the ZPD.  After working hard through the police academy and leaving behind her hometown of Bunnyburrow (as well as her overcautious parents and 275 siblings), Hopps begins her new life as the town’s first bunny cop.  But her career gets off to a rocky start as she struggles to earn the respect of her precinct’s leader, Chief Bogo (a buffalo voiced by Idris Elba), who sidelines Hopps by assigning her parking ticket duties.  

Through a series of events, Hopps lands in hot water with Chief Bogo, but before she can hand over her badge, she promises the wife of a missing otter that she will take it upon herself to find him.  An enraged Chief Bogo gives Hopps 48 hours to crack the case, but there are almost no clues and fewer witnesses.  The lone piece of the puzzle points her toward a fox she met earlier, a hustling con-artist, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).  After Hopps coerces Nick into helping her, the pair’s investigation begins.  It’s a race against the clock before they realize this simple missing animals case goes higher up the ladder than either can imagine.    

If you didn’t know that I was talking about a kids’ movie with speaking animals and just told you the basic plot outline, you have to admit you’d probably think to yourself, “Hey, that sounds pretty damn good.  Is that the new True Detective?”  And that’s the thing – fundamentally, Zootopia has a very good story (not that season 2 of True Detective was that hard top).  Jared Bush and Phil Johnston’s screenplay is very sharp, airtight and, even in weightier moments, still manages to keep the humor robust.  I don’t feel like I laugh a lot at movies that are supposed to be funny and the fact that I had to go see this alone at the Vista Theatre on Sunset on a Saturday night among a sea of man-buns and kale-eaters, but was still howling throughout really speaks volumes as to how funny Zootopia is.  

The film also smartly demonstrates teachable moments concerning some of the most prevalent social ills that plague us today – gender/racial inequality and the dangers of stereotyping.  While Disney’s animated films usually try to teach kids (and occasionally adults) all sorts of life lessons, they typically concern personal or internal conflicts – rarely are they the same struggles regularly seen on the evening news or the internet.  And when educating about anything, the most difficult part involves the basic transmission and, again, the script really shines here as the situations and dialogue (such as when we first meet Nick) are just enough to be effective but far from overpowering.

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Even if your kid manages to miss the point of Zootopia’s lessons about equality and never giving up on dreams – well, hell, let’s face it – it’s still a 3D movie with funny animals wearing clothes and colorful images that pop vibrantly like a wall of lava lamps on LSD; either way, they are going to DIG IT.  For the adults taking them, they’ll find pleasure in the jokes poking fun at grownup problems and a twisty, procedural-influenced storyline littered with pop culture nods and cameos.  It’s effectively humorous, engaging and results in a worthwhile payoff.  Even a lot of live action movies often struggle to be so satisfying.  Best of all, it’s not a musical with a bunch of songs you’ll already be sick of hearing the kiddos belt out by the end of the car ride home.  The only big number is during the end credits so if you find Shakira’s voice that intolerable, you can bolt for the exit doors before she hits her first grating high note.  

Zootopia is an excellent animated film that even people who don’t often see (or care that much about) animation can get behind.  Kids and adults will certainly both enjoy it, but grownups might be able to relate to their world a bit more.  We see the social injustices and inequality play out daily.  In that sense, the animal city’s issues hit very close to home.  However, at least in Zootopia, they work together to try and solve them.