This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 3rd April 2016
For many years now, children’s movies have been expert in the field of “double address” – the ability to connect with the young audience on a literal level as well as the accompanying adults in the more sophisticated realm of inference and meta-commentary.
Much of Zootopia’s charm results from its wonderful animation and captivating energy, but at heart it’s the witty, insightful script around deeper socio-political issues (and the in-jokes about real life) which makes it truly satisfying for any grown-up who goes to see it.
Judy Hopps has grown up with a dream of being Zootopia’s first leporine police officer – and the city’s first female bunny cop, at that – and so, as she begins her career in the big smoke (living in a dowdy tenement block with paper-thin walls and a springy bed), the film’s key message that “Anyone can be anything” starts to take seed. And for a target audience of youngsters , that’s a worthy lesson.
OK, so far, not-very-meta – but when we see Judy battling institutional prejudice (against bunnies, against girls, against little creatures) and displaying her own intolerance of foxes, stemming from experience and family conditioning, Zootopia’s raison d’être becomes very clear and ultimately very apt. Devoted to fighting the city’s crime, Hopps meets a tricky character who winds up being the very person to teach her, and our young viewers, a valuable lesson about stereotyping, assumptions and bigotry.
Despite his huge coven of writers (which can often signal a mess of a screenplay), director Byron Howard brings his experience heading Tangled and Bolt to terrific effect on this very apposite social commentary. The lively vocal cast, which includes Jason Bateman and Idris Elba, delivers a wonderfully clever script which mixes a Godfather pastiche with a fantastically timed gag about slow-moving employees in government departments. Preaching the utopia of “predator and prey living in harmony”, Howard’s team attends to issues of mistrust and forgiveness in a story which would do well to be absorbed by tomorrow’s adult population.