I must admit that for a Disney animated film about an adorable little bunny rabbit, Zootopia proved harder to shake off than I expected. I should have taken a closer look at the behind-the-scenes talent involved in this, but the depth and complexity with which this kids’ movie treats some very grown-up themes still would have taken me by surprise. Now that you’re reading this review, you can go into this better prepared for it than I was.
In a world where predatory animals have evolved to live side by side in an urban environment with those they once preyed upon, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny who wants to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, despite her parents telling her that rabbits never get on the force. Her diligence and grit helps her realize her lifelong dream and become the first bunny ever hired as a cop, but her youthful idealism hits a wall when it’s made clear to her that she’s an affirmative-action hire. Disrespected by her alpha-male colleagues and assigned meter-maid duty by the police chief (voiced by Idris Elba), Judy’s attempts to get ahead playing by the rules go nowhere until she cottons onto a case with individual predators suddenly disappearing.
Judy’s a victim of discrimination who has to gently explain to a fellow officer that the word “cute” among bunnies is like the n-word among black people. Still, if you think this is a canned parable about overcoming other people’s preconceptions, this is a lot thornier than that. Judy discovers that some animals embody stereotypes — after all, she’s addressing her “cute” speech to an overweight cop who’s eating a donut. Then there’s the more complicated case of Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman), a fox whom she’s eager to help to prove that she has nothing against foxes. He promptly shows his colors as a scam artist, but ends up as one of the only ones she can trust as she arm-twists him into helping her on the case.
Judy herself is hardly free of prejudice, either. When she calls Nick “articulate” early in the movie, it’ll set alarm bells ringing in some viewers’ heads. After she solves the case halfway through the film, she gives a press conference where she makes uninformed generalizations about predators, and you can feel her sinking in quicksand even if she doesn’t notice. (Nick is at the press conference. He notices.) The case’s resolution sets the predators of Zootopia against the non-predators who form the great majority of the population, and it all feels chillingly accurate, right down to the moment when a gazelle pop music star (voiced by Shakira) makes a teary public plea for tolerance amid all the unrest. The parable’s power lies in its slipperiness — at different times both Nick and Judy are in vulnerable positions that recall blacks, homosexuals, and Muslims, but because they’re none of those things, they’re forced to reckon with different forms of discrimination that all of them suffer.
All this is packaged in a film that recalls the dramatic feel of noir thrillers like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. The creative talent here includes director Byron Howard (from Tangled and Bolt) and director Rich Moore and co-writer Phil Johnston (both from Wreck-It Ralph), who ensure that it’s all carried off with wit and intelligence. The movie falls flat during an encounter with a mob boss that’s straight out of The Godfather, but elsewhere we get tasty little details like the bootleg DVD titles being sold by a weasel (voiced by Alan Tudyk), not to mention the in-joke of Tudyk portraying a character with the same name as his character from Frozen. The rest of the voice cast is just as personable, with Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt as Judy’s frenetically worried parents, J.K. Simmons as a blustery mayor, and Jenny Slate as an overburdened assistant mayor. There’s a delicious slow burn when Nick and Judy visit Zootopia’s DMV, which is staffed by sloths. The animators must have had so much fun making the sloths react to everything at one-quarter speed.
The movie misses a chance to comment meaningfully on how prejudice can affect police work, but it nails something else that’s in the air. The chief villain here is revealed to be inciting violent behavior among the predators for political gain, telling Judy, “Fear always wins.” Looking out at our political landscape right now, the bad guy seems to have ample reason to say that. Zootopia isn’t tied down to any specific element in our present-day environment, but nevertheless it emerges as chillingly relevant to our time.
Voices by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston. Rated PG.[/box_info]