Talk about timing. After a year in which systemic racism – in the arenas of government, everyday society, popular culture, and especially law enforcement – has dominated the national discussion, Zootopia charges out of the gate as an impassioned, ingenious defense of diversity, one as unusually committed to its topical themes as it is awash in some of the most gloriously imaginative, seat-of-your-pants storytelling Disney has delivered in years. Hitting theaters less than a week after Inside Out‘s Best Animated Feature win at the Oscars, the film is at the very least a lock to be nominated next year.
Set in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia, a stunningly beautiful and incredibly detailed city divided up into individually climatized sectors like Tundratown (a snowy neighborhood home to polar bears and timber wolves) and Little Rodentia (a city for mice, voles, and similar species, rendered in miniature), the film wastes no time in laying out its clever conceit.
The critters of its “evolved” animal kingdom, prey and predator both, have learned to live together in apparent harmony. “Anyone can be anything” is the overriding message here, with a decadent introduction to Zootopia showcasing pop star gazelles, suit-wearing lemmings, and countless other cleverly refined fauna. There’s still a little food-chain hierarchy going on, with a lion (voiced by J.K. Simmons) serving as mayor and a police force filled mainly with predators, but the society is liberal enough that when an ambitious young rabbit named Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) puts her mind to becoming Zootopia’s first bunny cop, she’s eventually able to prevail.
Of course, the unfailingly upbeat Judy – raised in carrot-farming country – soon finds that life in Zootopia comes with its own set of challenges. Looked down upon by her Cape buffalo superior (Idris Elba) both because of her gender and “prey” status, Judy soon finds herself demeaned by colleagues (she bristles at being called “cute,” seeing smatterings of species-ism in the descriptor) and saddled with meter-maid duty. Diminutive sheep Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate), the oft-mistreated deputy mayor, turns out to be the only one on her side, being of the belief that “us little guys need to stick together.”
Before long, though, Judy comes into contact with con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a cynical smooth-talker who knows Zootopia’s seedier areas like the back of his paw. He’s far from an ideal tour guide, but when Judy maneuvers her way onto a missing-persons case (err, make that missing-ferrets case), she’s quick to cajole him into helping her track down the mysteriously vanished critter.
That’s where Zootopia gets really interesting. Not content to simply establish a staggeringly creative, lushly animated universe, the film also reveals itself to be a compelling, unexpectedly intense detective noir much more akin to Who Framed Roger Rabbit than Frozen – albeit with plenty of side-splitting sequences (it’s a shame that the sloths at the DMV bit was spoiled ahead of time by trailers, but the version up on screen is somehow even more howlingly funny) and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags (the transportation system of choice is Zuber, according to one billboard). As Judy and Nick work their way through the Zootopian underworld, eventually uncovering a conspiracy that threatens to upend the whole society, there’s unexpected darkness, depth, and directness to the narrative.
A Disney film taking such an approach is brave, but it pays off massively. The wily, wide-reaching script (by co-directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush, as well as Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, and Jennifer Lee) works well as a hard-boiled whodunit while simultaneously lending itself to the grin-inducing character beats and world-building for which Zootopia‘s target audience will most adore it. Furthermore, the film’s frankness in broaching the topics wrapped up in its premise – like patriarchal oppression, racial profiling, workplace sexism, institutionalized discrimination, mass hysteria, and cultural identity – allows the film to comment, in ways both substantial and subtle, on all of them.
In one scene, a character unintentionally spreads fear by linking an epidemic of animals going “savage” (i.e. primeval) to the city’s minority predator population. When confronted about it by one such predator, a trusted friend, they still instinctively back up – and it’s a moment of betrayal that registers like a punch to the gut. For all the evolved positivity of Zootopia’s do-anything, be-anyone ethos, the city’s animals are still stuck in primitive belief systems about certain species embodying specific traits (a fox, for example, should never be trusted).
This is tough stuff to throw into a kid’s movie, but it’s also deeply relevant to that demographic (and to every demographic, really). Zootopia is thoughtful in how it acknowledges that our backgrounds (whether racial, ethnic, or – less statedly – sexual) will always play a role in how we’re perceived by others, but that we also have the gift of self-determination in deciding whether we allow such perceptions to define us. Moreover, we have the capacity to limit how much our own perceptions of those around us are born out of pigeonholing (and it says something about Zootopia‘s effect that I hesitate to use that word out of concern for how it might impact the pigeons).
Crucially, none of Zootopia‘s astute social commentary comes at the expense of its entertainment value. The film is a brilliant, dazzling presentation of animation at its absolute finest, painting its animal kingdom with rich detail and in splendid color. The way in which Zootopia appears at once fantastical and somehow functional is alone representative of the years of work that went into both conceptually wrangling the film’s grand vision and executing it with appropriate artistry. This feels, inexplicably, like a real place.
The voice cast is uniformly great as well, with Goodwin’s bubbly cheer and Bateman’s sarcastic charm each befitting their respective animal heroes. And the range of jokes on display, from snicker-inducing animal puns to hyper-meta hat-tips to the entire Disney oeuvre, is a rib-tickling delight.
Inside Out drew upon its profound, heartfelt core to fully invest moviegoers in a young girl’s emotional state; its establishing of her happiness as something truly indispensable made that movie one of the most extraordinarily tense and moving pictures of last year, in any genre. And though Zootopia doesn’t match that movie’s tender spirit (to be fair: it doesn’t try to), it similarly employs great creativity, maturity, and intelligence to weave a yarn that feels all the more entertaining and worthwhile because it’s actually about something. More animated features should aspire to their high standard, and more movies in general should ask audiences of all ages to wrestle with questions of prejudice, both explicit and implicit, both in the theater and outside of it.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as its long-eared lead while still brilliantly conscious of social issues, Zootopia represents Disney at its most visually resplendent and thematically ambitious.