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“Zootopia” has laughs and heart going for it (movie review)

By Jeff Boudreaux

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Disney returns to their historical place at the pinnacle of animated entertainment, with the charming “Zootopia,” a 3D re-imagining of what our planet would look like as populated by animals. In a landscape where the differences between predators and prey are a complete non-issue, there are those who wish to set back the relations between mammals by hundreds of years by creating chaos seated in bigotry (sounds straight out of current newspaper headlines if you ask me)! Unsurprisingly, it is up to a fearless bunny and a sly fox to uncover such a conspiracy and restore harmony among the groups. Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the respective directors of “Tangled” and “Wreck-it Ralph,” team up to deliver a hilarious, heartfelt and substantive treat that parents can enjoy right alongside their kids.

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Little Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has aspirations of being a police officer, which would certainly be the first of her kind. Known even at an early age to stick up for other rabbits and sheep alike from the bullish tactics of the local fox, Judy journey’s from her mom and dad’s carrot farm to the animal metropolis known as “Zootopia,” where residents can be anything they want and where predators and prey live in perfect harmony. Graduating with honors from the police academy, Judy is relegated on her first day to functioning as a meter maid by police chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a water buffalo. While this isn’t exactly what Judy envisioned as a heroic member of the force, she sets out to be the best meter maid that she can be, setting twice the department record for tickets written. Her luck seemingly changes when she discovers a sneaky fox named Nick (Jason Bateman), peering outside the local ice cream shop. Investigating his activity, and after initially being scammed herself, Judy discovers that Nick and his popsicle-begging “son” are just a couple of free-enterprising hustlers and there’s nothing Judy can do about it…yet.

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Back at police headquarters there’s much bigger fish to fry, namely 14 missing citizens (all traditionally predators). The latest case being Mr. Otterton, whose wife (Octavia Spencer) is pleading with the Chief to find her husband. Judy feels pity for the woman and agrees to find the otter (much to Bogo’s chagrin). The embarrassed Chief gives her two days to do what the rest of his department can’t or she is fired. Seeking the help of everyone’s favorite con artist, Judy goads Nick into bragging about the “tax-free” money he makes, of which she promptly uses their conversation to blackmail him into helping her find the otter. Starting out as an inconvenience for Nick and an absolute necessity for Judy – throughout the next 48 hours the two must get to the bottom of what has happened to all of these predators. As they encounter an array of hilarious and colorful characters, they may even learn something important about friendship and the dangers of species “profiling.” Also starring Oscar-winner J.K Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Tommy Chong as a spaced out Yak and Shakira as “Gazelle,” Zootopia’s resident superstar singer.

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Ginnifer Goodwin is perfectly cast as the voice of Judy and what else can I say about Jason Bateman except that the role of Nick Wilde was undoubtedly written with the snarky actor in mind. You just won’t be able to envision anyone else pulling this off in retrospect. When we get past the insults, the deceptions, and the stigma that bunnies and foxes can’t coexist, it will come as no surprise to anyone that these two traditional enemies become fast friends, and their chemistry together is one of the greatest things about this movie. Naturally, their relationship becomes tested throughout the course of the film. As expected, children will learn valuable lessons about honesty, courage, self-worth, and that they can truly aim for the skies. Of course, it helps a great deal by having two of the cutest and funniest protagonists that have graced a Disney film in quite some time.

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“Zootopia” is an utter (or should I say “otter”) delight for the entire family. The laughs come at a brisk pace in this screenplay by co-director Jared Bush and Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids,” “The Brothers Grimsby”), and adults will have as much of a reason to enjoy this film as the legions of children that will insist upon seeing this. Throughout the entire film, I was honestly astounded by the material geared towards the adult portion of this film’s audience – with jokes that only world-worn denizens will undoubtedly get the full benefit of such as the picture-perfect depiction of the much-maligned DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). There’s also a magnificent mafia send-up that concerns the appearance of “Mr. Big,” a creature at the top of the criminal food chain in Zootopia, of which I won’t spoil the hilarity of his appearance. What I will say, however, is that the role is a sidesplitting spoof of Marlon Brando’s legendary, and oft-imitated Vito Corleone from “The Godfather.” Combine all of this with one character’s remark about “speaking in tongues” and there is no doubt that youngsters might feel the hair on their respective heads brush back in response to the overwhelming wit being propagated onscreen. Parents shouldn’t worry though, as the little ones will be too busy being unequivocally amused by the collective antics of Nick, Judy, and all of the other residents of Zootopia.

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Throughout the advent and longevity of Disney’s lucrative partnership with the amazing storytellers over at Pixar, it became common knowledge that the iconic studio’s singular work just didn’t quite add up to that level of quality entertainment. Flops such as “Treasure Planet,” “Home on the Range,” and “Meet the Robinsons” were seen as a somewhat feeble attempt to remain relevant in the face of a changing animated landscape and they outright risked forever relinquishing their brand to the Pixar name. However, the canon of “Walt Disney Animated Classics” have steadily made inroads with audiences and critics alike in the last several years and have had certifiable hits with their last two efforts, the back-to-back Oscar-winners “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” It’s a little too early to call, but the Academy’s frontrunner for next year’s Oscar race certainly begins with “Zootopia,” and whether or not it can stave off the challenge from Disney/Pixar’s highly-anticipated “Finding Dory” remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, it’s a remarkable film that will deserve any accolade bestowed upon it.

***1/2 (three-and-a-half out of four stars)

 

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