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'Zootopia' goes awry with darker themes

The first sign that Disney’s “Zootopia” might be something different than the average non-Pixar animated film was the droll trailer that played before “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in December. If you saw “Star Wars,” you probably saw the trailer, featuring a DMV staffed by slow-moving sloths. If you saw “Star Wars” more than once, you probably saw the trailer more than once.

You likely laughed at it more than once, too. While the preview succeeded in appealing to young audiences, it also demonstrated that “Zootopia” might be a film that looks beyond the normal comedic constraints of most kid-centric animated efforts.

Those suspicions were correct. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. “Zootopia” is an utter (udder?) oddity, an entertaining but surprisingly dark and heavy handed film about a world of anthropomorphic animals living together.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure how to classify it. On one hand, “Zootopia” checks all the family film boxes — some cute characters, star voices, truly stunning CG animation, a full line of already released toys.

On the other, it is a rather somber and overlong film about prejudice, profiling and finding one’s place in a large, diverse universe. A universe of anthropomorphic animals, but still.

The center of this universe is the city of Zootopia, a wonderfully designed place with space for animals large and (very) small, and sections of rainforest, desert and icy tundra. Into this megalopolis arrives Judy Hopps, the first rabbit to join Zootopia’s police force.

This has been Judy’s lifelong dream, and the plucky rabbit — delightfully and endearingly voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin — is strong-willed in the face of remarks that she is too small for such a job.

The film’s first half hour or so, in which we meet Judy as a child, watch her graduate from police academy, arrive in the city and start her job (on traffic duty), is a pleasure. The animals on the force, especially Idris Elba’s Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo, are superb creations.

An addition to the story of a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) does not diminish the joy, as Nick is a clever, funny foil.

It is only when “Zootopia’s” missing-animals plot takes off that the film begins its downward descent. It seems a number of animals (all predators) are disappearing, and Judy ends up on the case. What she finds is, well, surprisingly fearsome. It’s also very, very bold on the part of directors Byron P. Howard (co-director of “Bolt” and “Tangled”) and Rich Moore (director of “Wreck-It Ralph”), and co-director Jared Bush.

But is it wise? As “Zootopia” progresses, it introduces some very weighty themes, many that will speed over the heads of its young audience. It also wastes an inordinate amount of time on, oddly, a not-very-funny “Godfather” parody.

The tone during much of this stretch is downright gloomy. The fun returns a bit during a lengthy sequence on a speeding subway car, and it all culminates in a happy music sequence. However, by this point many young viewers will have checked out.

Like Pixar’s recent flop “The Good Dinosaur,” “Zootopia” is too dark, too mature, and too slow for very young viewers. (My 5-year-old was definitely frightened at various points, and there seemed to be more little-ones stirring at the preview screening than usual for a kids’ film.) I’d expect kids closer to 9 or 10 years of age to find it more to their liking.

What’s undeniable is the vocal work of Goodwin, Bateman, Elba and the great Jenny Slate, as well as some gorgeously imaginative animation. And the ground is laid nicely for the inevitable sequel.

Still, in its attempt to please both children and adults equally, “Zootopia” is a failure. It’s an ambitious disappointment, one that deserves credit for seeking to tackle issues of real importance in a Disney animated film, but a disappointment all the same. Perhaps there was just no topping the sloths-at-the-DMV sequence.



2.5 stars (out of four)

With the voices of: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer

Directors: Byron P. Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.

The lowdown: A fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy.

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