Review: ‘Zootopia’ Lots of Style, Too Much Substance

Disney’s 55th animated film Zootopia opens nationwide this weekend. While the movie has moments of spectacular animation and an energetic cast (Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman especially), it is maligned by a story that seems too interested in social commentary and not in entertaining an audience.

Zootopia boasts a perfect voice cast with the likes of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, and Idris Elba. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Zootopia’s first ever bunny police officer, Judy Hopps. She discovers breaking barriers can be an uphill climb. Although Judy cannot wait to bust her first bad guy, the police chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a surly cape buffalo, has the mindset of her being a just meter maid. Hopps exceeds expectations by writing 200 tickets before noon on her first day. However, when some of Zootpia’s residents suddenly go missing, Bogo gives Judy the green light to try and crack the case. Judy finds herself partnering up with a sneaky scam artist of a Fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), as she only has 48 hours to try and crack the case or she will be forced to turn in her badge.

Zootopia visually pops off the screen thanks to the stellar production design of David Goetz. The color palette of animation was vibrant, and the architectural backdrops were whimsical and fun. Every microclimate (suburb) in Zootopia is meticulously designed to be representative of where these animals would call home and just how it would be plausible for these homes to co-exist.

Looking at the individual characters of the film, head of animation Renato dos Anjos and animation supervisors Kira Lehtomaki, Nathan Engelhardt, Jennifer Hager, and Chad Sellers all did fantastic jobs adding elements of realism to the multiple animals and buildings in Zootopia. The animators understood that Judy’s physicality would change as she went from meek rabbit, to officer in training, and finally a cop. To convey this, as the film went on they backed off just making her look so cute and adjusted the posture gradually and the tone of her voice ever so slightly to show a sense of confidence in Judy as she gained more experience as an officer. If they had not done this, then the audience would have had a hard time believing that Judy could be a cop.

The other challenge that Zootopia faced was how to make these animals realistic on screen. Disney used the same technique that they employed in Big Hero 6 and utilized the Hyperion Render. For those that may not remember, the Hyperion Renderer was first used in Big Hero 6 to help path trace the geometric complexities of how light moves into a scene, and how it bounces off objects. As light hits fur, it has a way of softening the way it looks and enhancing the richness and color of each animal. To enhance this effect, each of the animals in Zootopia has a surprising amount of hair. One mouse in Zootopia has 480,000 strands of hair, and a Giraffe has 9.2 million strands of hair. To put those numbers in context, Elsa in Frozen had 400,000 strands of hair and that one Giraffe has more hair than all the characters in Frozen combined. In a film with a variety of fur and complex building structures, using the Hyperion Render was a crucial decision that paid off with images so rich in color that you felt that animals were life like.

Where Zootopia falls off a big cliff is when the film meanders from being entertaining to making a point. Screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnson attempt to craft a screenplay riddled with social commentary. At one point we have our first ever bunny cop Judy Hops instructing the desk cop (who happens to be a cheetah) that he is addressing her in an offensive manner to which the cheetah claims “he does not want to offend.” There is also a continuous story line where we are discussing that not all predators are “savages” (even though some of them are acting that way). Not to mention the fact that Officer Hopps is dealing with bunny discrimination from the other cops and a fox who’s been labeled as “sly.” There comes a point where you reach overkill and Zootopia does that at around the 20-minute mark of the film. While I understand the need for filmmakers or screenwriters to make a point but come on, this is supposed to be a family movie that’s entertaining, not some hard hitting look at society. I get it; we live in a world full of discrimination but when you spend most of the movie making that point you lose sight of what matters as well and that is being entertaining. There has to be a balance between the two sides (entertainment and societal commentary). Without balance, the film tends to drag, and a perfect example of this is Zootopia. Remember that less is more and that balance is everything in a movie.

For those of you who were expecting some visually stunning crisply relevant film that’s an anthropomorphic CG menagerie of fun will instead be treated to a visually stunning, albeit preachy film that’s an anthropomorphic CG menagerie of disappointment.




Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Shakira, Maurice LaMarsh.

Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore

Screenwriters: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston

Producer: Clark Spencer

Executive Producer: John Lasseter

Production designer: David Goetz

Visual effects supervisor: Scott Kersavage



Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.