“Zootopia” piqued immense interest with its promised blend of sloth-full humor and neo-noir accents set against the backdrop of a city made up of anthropomorphic animals. Perhaps this exact combination has never been done before, but there are certainly echoes of the past here. Really, it feels like an amalgamation of post-war noir and the buddy-cop films of the 1980s. Both genres have a storied tradition, but in this case, because the animation is such an integral part of the narrative, there is only one predecessor to “Zootopia” in the purest sense.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was an homage to the Golden Age of Animation as much as it ripped inspiration from the pages of Raymond Chandler. But it also did something that Disney very rarely did. It felt edgier, darker and more risqué while still wrapping these sensibilities up in the throes of Richard Williams’ meticulous animation. Director Robert Zemeckis, fresh off “Back to the Future,” perfectly placed live-action characters right next to animated ones, and it worked to the nth degree as a cinematic hybrid.
The best homages pay their respects and still muster up the necessary resources to carve out a niche of their own. They are not solely a gimmick or, in this case, a technical marvel. The eponymous Roger Rabbit finds time to stretch the limits of the frame visually, but he’s also the story’s obligatory victim. Meanwhile, Bob Hoskins’ turn as a gumshoe falls in line nicely with the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. A seething villain was born in Judge Doom (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), only to be surpassed by the beguiling femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner).
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” stands on its own merit as not only a feat of cutting edge animation or wicked wit, but visceral noir storytelling. Disney may have gone a little safer with “Zootopia,” but that’s not to say that it cannot be a similarly gripping and resolutely amusing experience. Sloths and noir sounds like a winning combination if there ever was one.