For years Disney animation used to mean great things, and under the stewardship of John Lasseter in recent years, it has made great strides towards becoming the premier animation studio. In fact the improvement has been so great (and Pixar’s offerings so mediocre) that Walt Disney Animation Studios has rivalled Pixar for the title of best animation studio over the past few years.
This return to form has resulted in some of the best animated films of recent years, with the studio outdoing its stablemate Pixar while also bringing the much loved Disney princess sub-genre back to top form. While the likes of Bolt, Lilo & Stitch and the The Princess and the Frog mark the start of the turnaround in the opening decade of this century, it has really been the releases in the 2010s that stand out. The Rapunzel based Tangled, computer games based Wreck-It Ralph , the seemingly ever-enduring Snow Queen adaptation Frozen, and the most recent offering of Big Hero 6 have all been critical and commercial successes and almost all were easily not only the best animated film in their release year, but one of the best films released from any genre.
And so we turn our gaze to the latest Disney animation, Zootropolis…or Zootopia as it is known in most other regions. Apparently the reason for the name change in the UK is “to merely allow the film to have a unique title that works for UK audiences”…but whatever the reason, the real intrigue is whether or not Zootropolis will live up to the rising expectations that once again comes with a Disney animation.
The film is set in an anthropomorphic world and centres on Judy Hopps, a rabbit from rural Bunnyburrow, and her attempt to realise her ambition of becoming the first rabbit police officer in the nearby city of Zootopia/Zootropolis. Here’s the official synopsis and trailer:
Zootropolis is a city like no other. But when optimistic Judy Hopps arrives, she discovers that being a bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking fox, Nick Wilde. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootropolis,” is a comedy-adventure directed by Tangled’s Byron Howard and Wreck-It Ralph’s Rich Moore.
Well, it certainly isn’t a bad film. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s a pretty good film, but it’s not a great film, and it certainly doesn’t quite reach the same levels as its recent Disney forebears.
The plot is somewhat formulaic, even for a Disney film, and the characters lack the dimensions and intricacies that made recent Disney films such a joy to watch.
Whereas Frozen and Big Hero 6 and even Wreck-It Ralph all deal with looking beyond the superficial, challenging prejudice and encouraging self-reflection, they do so with varying levels of subtlety that is totally missing from Zootropolis. Instead we are spoon fed an oversimplified commentary on societal and political prejudice that is at times rather clumsy, and at others, downright patronising.
The characters were also rather obvious and generic. The physically small character with a big heart and no one taking her/him seriously, check. The sneaky petty criminal who has been “done wrong” in his youth and now survives by the only means he can (although he/she’s really got a good heart), check. The overbearing, gruff police chief who dismisses the aforementioned small character/big heart, only to realise the error of his ways after he/she solves unsolvable crimes, check. The charismatic authority figure that treats his underlings poorly and tries to keep important information from the public to protect him/herself under the guise of protecting the public, check. It’s all very generic and really does little to subvert any of the traditional character developments.
Judy Hopps, the main character, is a precocious rabbit who dreams of more than simply joining the family business – carrot farmers – but dreams of something better. Unsurprisingly moving to the big city and living her dream isn’t all she had hoped. As a character, she is perfectly fine, without really ever being particularly interesting and because of this, she struggles to carry the film in the same way that Ralph, Anna or Hiro do.
The main message of prejudice and inclusion is undoubtedly an important one, but it is one that is so overt in Zootropolis, that it almost entirely detracts from the film. So much so, that even in some of the more emotional sections of the film, I never quite felt the same empathy that I did in Wreck it Ralph or Big Hero 6.
The film also fell into the trailer trap that is the scourge of Hollywood at the moment – all the funniest moments are in the trailers. I still cannot fathom why studios insist on ruining potentially great moments by including them in trailers but they do. While the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed its trailers perfectly, almost always revolving around the same sections of the film and giving next to nothing away, Zootropolis has some of its best moments, and certainly its funniest moments, ruined by the fact that the audience has already seen them.
Despite this trailer damage and the attempt to barrage us with constant reminders of the dangers of prejudice and the need for inclusion, the film just about managed to keep me engaged for its full 1 hour and 48 minutes. There was some level of engagement with the characters, and some of the plot twists were well executed, although easily telegraphed.
Zootropolis is by no means a bad film. But it doesn’t live up to its recent Disney branded predecessors, and I think I would even place it behind both of Pixar’s 2015 offerings which, despite my reservations about Inside Out, were both still more emotionally engaging and visually immersive while also forcing the viewer to reflect on society, family and relationships.