Set in a world where animals have evolved and now live much as we do — yes, we get a little bit of backstory on this alternate universe — Disney’s 55th animated film, Zootopia, centers on Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a small town rabbit with dreams of being a police officer, who moves to the city that gives the film its title. While Judy is indeed successful in becoming a cop, notably the first ever rabbit to do so, she’s still overlooked by everyone, including Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) and assigned to parking duty.
However, when Judy takes it upon herself to begin investigating the latest in a series of local disappearances, she enlists the help (whether he likes it or not) of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist fox she’d previously encountered. With her job on the line, the two begin to discover the disappearances in Zootopia are tied into a conspiracy and a cover-up involving some disturbing occurrences among the locals…
So yes, Zootopia is essentially using a whodunit approach (albeit toning down on the murder) and centers on two mismatched buddies solving a crime together. All time-honored story methods and all done in an engaging manner here, propelled along by two great characters.
Judy Hopps is an incredibly optimistic, upbeat character and directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-it Ralph), co-director Jared Bush (Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero), Goodwin and the film’s talented animators make her an amazingly lovable, easy to root for hero. Her upbeat attitude can also make her naïve, which isn’t ignored in the film, as Judy misspeaks and screws up at times, but she’s always so endearing and likable, you root for her throughout.
Bateman meanwhile is playing a variation on the con man persona he had perfected since he was a child actor in shows like Silver Spoons and It’s Your Move. He is, as always, excellent, playing a guy who’s able to humorously manipulate those around him, but the story does a strong job delving into what makes Nick tick and what has motivated him into becoming the less than laudable guy he’s become.
Zootopia is continually funny and engaging from the start, when we see Judy’s far less positive parents tell her how it’s okay to have dreams; just don’t try and achieve them. The animation is terrific and Zootopia, the location, is a fantastic creation – a place made up of subsections that run the gamut from desert terrain to a snow-covered area to a central cityscape that is similar to what you’d find in a human city, yet also filled with many distinct tweaks to reflect the needs of its animal populace. A really great touch is that the animals in the film are all proportioned just as they are in our world, even though they also walk and talk, and a fantastic sequence makes use of this by having Judy follow a criminal into Little Rodentia, an area where all the buildings and vehicles are tiny for the rodents who live there, which suddenly makes Judy into a giant by comparison, crashing through the streets.
All of this would make Zootopia a very entertaining, easy to recommend movie… and then the film’s true themes kick in and it turns out to be something even more meaningful and thoughtful. Because ultimately, Zootopia is about race relations, racial profiling and how quickly even good, fairly rational people (or animals) can resort to stereotyping when a situation turns scary.
Heady stuff for a talking animal movie, to be sure, but it’s handled well. Without getting too specific on plot points, the conspiracy at the center of the film involves a lot of manipulation going on and shows how easy it is to suddenly transform a populace into an us vs. them scenario. It actually all becomes surprisingly topical — almost certainly a total coincidence, given how long a film like this takes to make — and I’m sure many think pieces are coming about how this Disney movie reflects our current landscape and how political figures can push alarmist buttons and turn people against each other in the process.
None of this is subtle for adults, but don’t worry – the movie doesn’t stop and turn solemn or overly dramatic — though there is drama, to be sure — and it manages to avoid feeling preachy. It’s fun and witty throughout, even as its strong themes becomes clear, and the kids in the audience when I saw it loved it – and man they sure adored that great sloth/DMV scene included in one of the trailers (which you all probably saw with The Force Awakens), quoting it in the lobby afterwards. Even the themes of stereotyping are sometimes handled with humor (Judy informs someone that only rabbits can call other rabbits “cute” – it’s an offensive word otherwise) and always with poignancy, including the idea that Nick, as a fox who is a con artist, is himself reflecting prejudices.
There are also some amusing in-jokes and meta references throughout, from a glimpse at the familiar-looking bootleg movies being sold on the corner in Zootopia to more than one jokey reference to Frozen – though I will say just one would have sufficed.
Oh, and be warned – that Shakira song from the movie (the singer has a voice role as well, as famous Zootopia performer “Gazelle”) is damn catchy and will get stuck in your head.