Aside from a couple of over-the-moon box office smashes in recent years, Disney Animation has become a runner-up within its own studio. Disney churns out the occasional please-all-masters hit like Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph, but Pixar turns out the classics. Part of the reason for the weird critical vitriol aimed at last year’s perfectly good The Good Dinosaur was that it appeared under the Pixar brand, while offering the unfocused story and mixed thematic signals we’ve come to expect from Disney.
Pixar has set a high bar for films about anthropomorphized critters, inanimate objects, artificial intelligences and abstract concepts, too high for a harmless but only marginally clever time-filler like Zootopia to fully hurdle. Creaky animal puns aren’t going to cut it. Zootopia is like the baseline version of a Disney effort—crisp and colorful animation, an intriguing lead character and a wafer-thin story, all in service of a slippery but presumably ennobling message of acceptance. It’s a thoroughly likable and entertaining film that remains almost completely devoid of high points.
Directed by Disney vets Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), Zootopia springs from an extremely low-grade high-concept premise: What if animals were like people? End of premise. Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a high-achieving rabbit who leaves the family carrot farm to become the first bunny cop of Zootopia, an urban “paradise” where predator and prey live in ostensible harmony. When Judy arrives for her first day on the force, however, she’s instantly stereotyped and marginalized by the all-predator cops, while harboring her own ingrained biases against foxes.
A childhood incident with a fox bully left Judy physically and emotionally scarred, and although she espouses “progressive” views on predators, she still carries a can of fox mace on her belt. Her trust issues come to a head when a smooth-talking con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) becomes involved in a kidnapping investigation that could make or break Judy’s career. Nick also dismisses Judy for her small size, and until the buddy-cop trappings take over, the film is largely concerned with themes of intolerance and diversity and bullying and the toxicity of stereotypes.
Unfortunately, it’s also a little all over the place. I’m all for hectoring children into checking their privilege, but I’m not sure what to make of the copious references to Breaking Bad and The Godfather. It feels like cynical parent bait randomly dangled into the script, just pop-culture references without context or punchline. There are some gorgeous images, the voice work is good and the pace rarely drags, but there’s no way Zootopia needed to be 108 minutes long, especially since the scarcity of major characters makes the identity of the villains pretty obvious.
And for all of the film’s empowering messages about transcending stereotypes, there is a pandering subtext about conquering “your” fears of the big, scary racial or ethnic other. It’s a scenario that probably required the clever nuance of Pixar rather than the blunt glibness of Disney.