The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Your racist Facebook friend is going to hate Zootopia. Here's a movie designed to help children understand complicated issues regarding race, specifically how human beings unfairly judge each other sometimes. While the story doesn't beat you over the head with a political message, it nonetheless provides an excellent springboard for some healthy post-movie discussion about bigotry and the need for increasing acceptance of those who are different from us.

The central figure is a bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) who dreams of one day becoming a police officer. She eventually makes her way to the police academy, where she graduates at the top of her class. She then gets a job in Zootopia, a magical city filled with anthropomorphic animals. The other members of the police force are all predatory creatures, making her the first cute-and-fuzzy officer ever. Initially assigned to the thankless role of meter maid, Judy later strikes a tenuous deal with her gruff buffalo boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), to investigate a series of mammal disappearances in the city. Assisting her is a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), whom she busts running a scam. He was the last person to see one of the victims. Nick doesn't always play by the rules, but he knows ways to bend them and work around the system. Together they uncover a disturbing reason for the disappearances, plus a much more sinister force behind them.

First and foremost, Zootopia is a grand piece of family entertainment. The city itself is magnificently animated, packed with interesting little background details, as well as a series of different boroughs, each one possessing its own unique trait (Sahara Square, the Rainforest District, etc.). The visuals are nothing short of gorgeous, no matter where in the city the story goes. The characters, meanwhile, are incredibly likeable, with Judy proving to be a Disney heroine for the ages, and Nick rising above the level of mere comic sidekick. Each and every supporting character, including a fly-ridden hippie yak voiced by Tommy Chong, is just as well-developed.

There are also plenty of big laughs. Some are very front and center, such as a hilarious scene set at the local DMV, where all the workers are sloths and everything takes ten times as long to do as it should. (Actually, sloths are to this movie what the Martians are to Toy Story and seagulls are to Finding Nemo.) Other jokes are slightly more subliminal, including humorous store names (Targoat instead of Target) and little Easter eggs hidden in the background. There's additionally a level of wit in the concept itself. Having a mystery plot is a refreshing twist. Lots of animated movies about animals have come before, but none have been quite like this.

In the last 40 minutes, Zootopia moves to another, richer level. It introduces a theme of racism that is incredibly appropriate to this day and age. Judy is allowed to join the police department thanks to an affirmative action-type program, yet immediately discriminated against for being a bunny rather than a predatory animal. Chief Bogo views her as not worthy of the opportunity, despite her immense qualifications. Judy has her own prejudices, too, especially when it comes to foxes; she has to learn to trust Nick following a bad encounter with a fox when she was young. The mystery they uncover is rooted in the idea of institutional racism and the fact that people often make emotional judgments about others without considering facts or individual personality. The movie even shows how these types of prejudices cause some groups to attempt to suppress the rights and take away the dignity of other groups, either out of fear or irrational hatred. While that may seem like a huge topic for a family movie to address, Zootopia handles it with an age-appropriate touch. Like many of the best animated films, it refuses to talk down to children and even assumes they are intelligent enough to understand sophisticated concepts.

There is not a level on which this movie doesn't work. It's fresh, it's funny, it's smart, and it's the kind of thing that will help children look at an important issue in a morally correct fashion. Best of all, it's entertaining from start to finish. Zootopia is to 2016 what Inside Out was to 2015: a next-level animated feature that gives kids something of substance while simultaneously showing them a really good time.

( out of four)

Zootopia is rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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