I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Bill Graham // Film Critic
Rarely have I felt more aware of my adultness than while watching ZOOTOPIA unfold while clueless kids cackled around me. You could take that a few ways, so let me slow down. ZOOTOPIA makes you appreciate your maturity because you catch the inside jokes and ways that directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush have woven in both subtle and overt clues to this allegory-heavy tale. The message at the heart of it all is rich and necessary now more than ever, which should please any adult that seeks the film out or stumbles upon it because it happens to be animated and star cute anthropomorphic animals. In fact, the narrative at the core would be pleasing even in a live-action film as it draws you in and within less than two hours has already wrapped everything up quite neatly.
The narrative follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a determined bunny from a suburb of Zootopia that dreams of becoming a cop. While male and female roles are rarely addressed even in this clever film, it is apparent that she is outnumbered in both gender and the species of animals on the force. The film makes it clear that while these animals are anthropomorphized, their base abilities are still intact. They still have teeth and claws. So, Judy is surrounded by bulls, rhinos, lions, and bears but she uses both her intellect and quickness to make it onto the force where she lands under the uncaring gaze of Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). Within moments her dreams are dashed as she realizes politics and the corporate ladder are hurdles she must overcome to start making a difference.
Thankfully the film doesn’t dwell on this too much as it allows her to land a case no one else wants and we are rushed along as her investigation takes us to a multitude of locations and enemies and allies. The entire world of ZOOTOPIA is lush and beautiful, with each “city” essentially doubling as a separate habitat of animals whether it is a snowscape with polar bears, a jaguar in a jungle setting, or other similar motifs. Everyone has roles and stereotypes they seem to be either rebelling against or embracing fully. One of the best laughs is that the DMV stand-in is manned by a slew of sloths behind the counters. And, of course, the film would really have sunk if it wasn’t for the outstanding Jason Bateman, who voices the fox Nick Wilde that reluctantly helps Judy in her investigation of a missing person.
Bateman fits the sly fox so well you are immediately in a place of comfort when he is on screen. His real life persona and the various roles he has played throughout his career help immensely and because it’s impossible for me to separate what he does here from what he has done elsewhere I’ll just say that he’s definitely the character you want around the most. Sure, Judy is earnest and focused, but it is Nick that feels the most real because he is always looking for an angle. The investigation they are on leads into some very interesting territory that the whole film continuously comments on regarding species as an allegory for race. There are constant species jokes that often land but a few falter here and there including a line where Judy tells an assistant that he can’t call her cute because he isn’t a bunny. Only bunnies can call each other cute. Those are the type of jokes that make you cringe at the idea of explaining why that joke is funny to a child.
There could have been a simple message of someone not being given the benefit of the doubt and still succeeding amidst the odds. That would have been a simple story that has been told countless times. But the creators behind ZOOTOPIA wanted to reach for more. Where they landed is something that feels refreshing in our current culture. It reminds one of how shows like FAMILY GUY or SOUTH PARK can make commentary on our culture because they are cartoons. Here, because we are dealing with animation aimed at kids, we get a balance of strong commentary hidden loosely under the guise of children’s entertainment. How they manage to both entertain the kids and the adults at the same time is always a tough task to accomplish and I know for certain the children in my audience were engaged throughout while I was stuck glued to the screen wondering where the mystery would take us next.
ZOOTOPIA opens today.
Our interview with directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore: