Would you have guessed that one of the movies that has most deftly tackled topics of racism and tolerance in recent memory is an animated Disney film featuring talking animals? Would you have also guessed that the same film is laugh-out-loud funny? What if I told you it’s also a buddy cop movie with several clever pop culture references?
Zootopia is all of those things, but most impressively it’s good at being all of those things. It strikes a near perfect balance between fun family comedy and message film, never feeling like it’s too much of either. It’s Disney’s first talking animal movie in quite awhile, but it’s sure to find a spot in the pantheon with the best of them.
In the world of Zootopia, both predators and prey have evolved past their natural urge to kill each other. Instead of living a life like you’d see in a nature documentary, the animals here have the same diversity of careers as humans. Some are reporters, some run ice cream shops, some are in politics and so on. Judy Hopps (voiced expertly by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from a family of farmers, wants to be a police officer despite the opposition of her family and the fact that there has never before been a bunny cop.
There’s your first major feel-good theme for the children: "I’ll just have to be the first one," Judy says, telling the audience that you can be whatever you want to be, no matter who tells you otherwise.
But after heading into the big city for her first day on the job, Judy is immediately struck by the harshness of adult life. It’s not enough that she has a depressing apartment with creaky furniture and annoyingly noisy neighbors. She gets to the police department only to find that she is treated as, in her own words, "a token bunny." She’s not there because her skills are respected. She’s there to fill a quota.
And for all her preaching about the importance of not judging a book by its cover, she’s not perfect, either. She and other residents of Zootopia are quick to stereotype certain former-predators, like foxes. In the case of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), the shoe almost fits. He’s a con artist always on the lookout for his next big scheme, caring more about himself than anybody around him.
At least until, predictably, circumstances force him to work with Judy on a case that at times resembles Lethal Weapon while other times it has shades of The Great Mouse Detective.
A lesser film would have easily been overwrought on any one of these themes, but Zootopia knows exactly when to rein things in and change things up. A high-action chase scene is followed by an incredibly slow (though surprisingly funny) trip to a DMV run entirely by sloths, which is followed later by another dangerous chase, with moments of steady storytelling in between it all.
Zootopia succeeds in large part because of how relevant it is to today’s society. Sure, this is true in the world’s technology (residents of Zootopia use smart phones that are basically iPhones) and in its cultural references (there’s a Breaking Bad joke. Seriously), but it’s most true in the conflicts of its plot. Bullying, prejudice, biased police officers, celebrities doubling as social advocates … Many of today’s hot button issues are tackled in ways that are still completely fitting for a family movie.
It may not have the catchy music of Frozen, but Zootopia is clever enough to capture the attention of most audiences, whether young or old, big or small, predator or prey.