Welcome to Zootropolis. Renamed from the American title Zootopia, presumably because the British are too cynical to believe in the concept of an animal utopia sight-unseen*, Disney Animation Studios’ latest smash is a bright, saturated alternate universe where animals live in harmony in adorable approximations of human existence. Our heroine is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), your typically plucky youngster who dreams of being something society informs her she can’t be: in this case, a rabbit who wants to be a police officer. Her gumption gets her from rural Bunnyburrow to the magnificent capital Zootropolis, and institutional bigotry leaves her with just 48 hours to find a missing animal or she’s out of a job.
The stakes might be familiar, but Zootropolis really does something special in the way it tells its story. While an adult audience may occasionally find the film’s allegorical approach a tad bold, there’s no denying that it is deeply important in its potential resonance with children in the current political climate. The particulars of the narrative may be familiar to an audience seasoned in modern television procedurals, but combining them so cleanly with a typically zippy animation makes them feel enjoyably refreshing.
Judy teams up with a streetsmart, cynical fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and this odd couple dynamic forms the buoyant heart of a film peppered with striking anthropomorphic characters that take inspiration from various pop culture sources. Celebrity voice casting for animated movies has become a fine art after some rough years, and Zootropolis is a particularly vital example, giving plum roles to distinctive voices like Jenny Slate and Idris Elba and allowing them to be consistently playful in their approach.
It’s a shame that Disney are less bold and challenging in their formal approach; the characters here are of the same wide-eyed mode as practically all mainstream animation has featured for the past decade or so, and the animals are uncannily akin to Sylvanian Families dolls in their close-textured fur and round faces. While the variety of Zootropolis boroughs we visit are distinctly designed and include some dynamic, inventive locales for action sequences, there’s a certain lack of depth to the images themselves, with bold colouring disguising vague backgrounds.
In the grand scheme of both contemporary animation and American cinema, though, Zootropolis is an unqualified treasure, delivering important messages in engaging, resonant fashion. It hits on a more political level than an emotional one, and the question of whether it will last as a Disney classic remains open. In some ways, though, that might be counterintuitive; what’s important is how ‘of the moment’ it is, and how it might well incite change for the future in the youngsters who draw these rousing messages into their malleable worldview. Zootropolis, even if renamed, does try to imagine an utopia, and it’s that hopeful quality that makes it so valuable in today’s cinematic landscape.
Zootropolis is in cinemas from Friday 25 March. Images ©2016 Disney.
*actually due to legal trademark issues concerning an unbuilt Danish zoo, of all things