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The origin of species Zootopia'

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Animated film offers plenty of laughs, surprising depth

It used to be that animated family films were almost solely aimed at younger audiences. For decades, the most beloved films (pretty much exclusively from Disney) were simple stories whose clear targets resulted in movies that were at best tolerable to older moviegoers.

However, recent years have seen animated films become far more layered and sophisticated still plenty enjoyable for the kiddie set, but also offering more complex references and storytelling for the adults in the crowd. Disney's early '90s renaissance started the ball rolling, while the geniuses at Pixar have taken things to the next level over the past decade-plus.

Disney has stepped up their game in turn. They've had a great run of films with generation-spanning appeal over the past few years movies like 'Frozen,' 'Wreck-It Ralph' and 'Big Hero 6' have all been great examples of kid-oriented fare that gave the grown-ups plenty to enjoy as well.

However, their latest effort 'Zootopia' might just be their best, featuring a richly-realized world filled with anthropomorphized animals. It also offers a story of surprising complexity, a well-wrought plot combined with a message that is unexpected in its real-world importance.

In a world populated by animals who have evolved beyond their instinct, the notions of 'predator' and 'prey' are largely antiquated, with animals no longer defined primarily by their biological imperatives. However, while they are no longer locked in the battle of the natural order, old instincts die hard despite living side by side, certain prejudices remain inescapable.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, TV's 'Once Upon a Time') is a young rabbit who is looking to change the world. Her chosen path to do so is to join the police academy and become an officer of the law in Zootopia, an enormous central metropolis featuring a dozen distinct ecosystems that make it a comfortable and familiar home for all manner of animals.

She becomes the first prey animal to join the ZPD, but it isn't long before she learns that changing the world won't be that easy. Despite her high academy marks and can-do spirit, Judy's superior officer Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, 'Beasts of No Nation') places her on parking duty as far as he is concerned, she's there solely because of an inclusion initiative being pushed by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons, 'Kung Fu Panda 3') and assistant mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate, 'Digging for Fire').

However, she soon finds herself taking on a missing otter case one on whose outcome her entire career depends. Her only hope for help is Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, 'The Gift'), a sly fox who unapologetically conned her, but who might hold the key to the only clue that she's got. Reluctantly, she enlists his unwilling help despite her own inherent prejudices against foxes.

From there, the unlikely duo wind up following a trail that leads in some unlikely directions. It turns out that there's a lot more to this that one missing otter; as the two slowly grow to trust one another, they uncover more and more of the truth. All of the denizens of Zootopia are forced to ask some very difficult questions both about their neighbors and about themselves.

In short, they have no way of knowing just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

On the surface, 'Zootopia' is a fun and funny film filled with talking animals wearing pants. Dig a little deeper and it's a clever and compelling mystery packed with some interesting twists and noir-ish aspects. And at its core, this movie is a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the nature of societal stereotypes and race relations. You want to talk about levels in your kids movies? Those are some levels right there. You don't expect this kind of realness from Disney, but it's there and it is fantastic.

And as if the degree of difficulty wasn't impressive enough in seamlessly blending these seemingly disparate styles and messages, the feat was accomplished with three directors (Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush) working from a screenplay by Bush and Phil Johnston. This is a creative team that was clearly firing on all cylinders the story that they tell and the world they've created in which to tell it are incredibly impressive.

As for the cast, Disney always does well when it comes to their voice actors, but this is definitely one of the most exceptional top-to-bottom crews that they've ever assembled. Goodwin is fantastic as the idealistic Judy, capturing the character's wide-eyed wonder while still managing to maintain an air of strength. Bateman's casting is flat-out perfect; his combination of easygoing charm and subtle sarcasm is the ideal fit for Nick. The two of them together are phenomenal, creating a relationship as real as you'll see in any live-action film, a celebration and subversion of the standard buddy-cop formula.

And the supporting cast? Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons are here. So are Jenny Slate and Alan Tudyk and Octavia Spencer and Shakira. SHAKIRA! I mean, come on it's an embarrassment of riches.

Even without the complexity of its message, 'Zootopia' would be a worthwhile addition to the Disney canon; the characters are great, the world is fascinating and the narrative is top-notch. But with that message? It might be the best offering from the studio this century.

[5 out of 5]


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