Disney's wild take on prejudice

PARTNERS IN CRIME: Rookie cop Judy Hopps (Goodwin) meets her match in the wily hustler Nick Wilde (Bateman), when they are forced to work together to find a missing otter. Howard, Moore and Bush's whodunnit boasts brilliant animation, endearing characters and a thoughtful examination of race relations.


    Feb 25, 2016

    Disney's wild take on prejudice


    Action-comedy/109 minutes/Opens today

    Rating: 5/5

    The story:

    Zootopia... a city where all creatures great and small live in harmony and anyone can be anything.

    At least that's what country bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is struggling to believe.

    On her first day as Zootopia Police Department's only rabbit officer, she's been ignominiously assigned parking duty and swindled by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con-artist fox.

    But this little flatfoot's about to get her big break.

    When an otter goes missing, ZPD Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) reluctantly assigns her the case, but with one condition: If she fails to crack it in 48 hours, she has to hand in her badge.

    Judy leaps at the chance, only to discover her key witness is Nick. The duo reluctantly team up to solve the mystery, but what they uncover turns out to be something bigger: a conspiracy that can destroy the fragile peace of their beloved city.

    ONE of my favourite film genres is the buddy-cop comedy. You take two characters with polar-opposite personalities, give them one of the most exciting and dangerous jobs on earth, and let them loose. It is an explosive formula for conflict, laughs and maybe a little bromance.

    In the alternate universe of directors Byron Howard (Tangled, 2010) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012), and first-time co-director Jared Bush, two natural enemies - a rabbit and a fox - are the odd couple.

    Judy, the idealist, believes in Zootopia's motto: Anyone can be anything.

    Nick, the cynic, is set in his ways and beliefs: He will always be a "sly fox" and she, a "dumb bunny".

    The wide-eyed ingenue versus world-weary native sets up an intriguing dynamic between the two.

    Yet the premise is nothing new; I've described this movie to others as the "cop and con" team of 48 Hrs. (1982), with the workplace discrimination theme of Cats Don't Dance (1997) and anthropomorphic beasts of graphic novel series Blacksad. But Walt Disney Animation Studios' grounding of the tale in contemporary times gives it a modern edge over its spiritual predecessors.

    After 54 films, the studio has moved past simplistic "Believe in yourself" and "True (romantic) love prevails" aphorisms and taken on more diverse and complex themes like sibling love (Frozen, 2013), loss (Big Hero 6, 2014) and redemption (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012).

    The motif here is prejudice. Zootopia - a place of dreams apparently inspired by Disneyland right down to its hub-and-spoke design - can stand for any multicultural metropolis in the world.

    Throughout the movie, the duo encounter discrimination from their fellow citizens: Judy is seen by her boss as a "token bunny" not fit to wear the uniform; Nick is frequently regarded as a charlatan.

    While some animals conform to their stereotypes - a government agency is run by lackadaisical sloths, for example - others subvert it, like a tiny arctic shrew - voiced by Pinky And The Brain voice actor Maurice LaMarche - being revered as a Vito Corleone-like mafioso.

    Howard said that during the film-makers' research, they found that "the majority of animals - 90 per cent - are prey, and only 10 per cent are predators". This is reflected in the cast's demographic: Judy's kind - prey animals - form the majority in Zootopia, while Nick's - predators - are the minority.

    While both groups are portrayed as living in harmony initially, a "racial" tinderbox nonetheless ignites when some citizens mysteriously revert to their feral state. In this regard, the movie raises uncomfortable but important questions about the nature-versus-nurture debate.

    The character animation is a delight; despite walking on their hind legs like humans, the animals here display much of their natural mannerisms.

    Nick pricks his ears up when he's alert, while Judy thumps her foot to voice her displeasure. The film-makers went on an expedition to Africa and spent time at Disney's Animal Kingdom and San Diego's Wild Animal Park, and their research shows on screen.

    Strangely, only mammals exist in Zootopia, and I wish that other classes like reptiles and birds were included.

    Production designer David Goetz's gorgeous, Richard Scarry-like metropolis also deserves praise for its clever blend of form and function, such as trains having multiple levels for animals of different sizes and districts resembling the critters' natural habitats.

    J. K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Cheech and Chong's Tommy Chong and Futurama's John DiMaggio voice Zootopia's mayor, his beleaguered assistant, a receptionist at a naturist club and an ice-cream parlour owner respectively.

    Pixar veteran Michael Giacchino delivers a jazzy noir score while Shakira's pop star character, Gazelle, croons the film's catchy anthem, Try Everything.

    Disney fans will relish spotting the easter eggs sprinkled throughout the movie: Alan Tudyk, who voiced the Duke of Weselton in Frozen, plays a weasel who sells bootlegs of Disney movies, while eagle-eyed viewers might spot two passers-by dressed as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna.

    With its charming characters and timely message, Zootopia is one of the Mouse House's most pensive and meaningful features. That Disney doesn't offer any easy answers at the end is admirable and shows how far the studio and Western animation have come.

    No world is perfect, but each of us, in small ways, can make a big difference to ours.