When I first saw advertising for Zootopia, I wrote it off as another mediocre animated animal movie that’d be a bore to those of us too old to impress others with our alphabet-reciting abilities. But Disney took this sure-to-lure kids premise and built a surprisingly sophisticated buddy cop comedy with a rich world and strikingly topical political message. Between #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite and the mind-snapping success of Donald Drumpf, racism has become a major talking point but dedicatedly tricky topic in America. Yet astonishingly, Zootopia enters into this discussion, and with a lot of moxie.
Set in a world where animals have evolved and they’ve built a society and put their savage predator and prey relationships behind them, Zootopia centers on the titular metropolis’s first bunny cop, Judy Hopps (an endlessly plucky Ginnifer Goodwin). The motto of this bustling city encourages residents to be anything they dream, but Judy is facing some jarring prejudice on her first day in the ZPD. The teeniest recruit in a field dominated by massive mammals, Judy is pawned off on parking ticket duty by her dismissive chief (a buffalo voiced by a growling and divine Idris Elba). But when a family
man otter goes missing, she stakes her career on finding him. To do so, she’ll have to overcome her own prejudices, teaming up with “sly fox” and hustler Nick Wilde (a perfectly employed Jason Bateman).
The missing otter premise leads this odd couple down a wild path that’ll throw them in the way of DMV sloths, a polar bear mafia, an adorable lamb voiced by the always hilarious Jenny Slate, and a twisted conspiracy. It’s an entertaining story made spectacular by inventive chase scenes, deliciously silly slapstick, and a production design that boasts gorgeous cultural enclaves like TundraTown, Sahara Square, and Little Rodentia. There are also scads of pop culture references, from a prolonged Godfather gag, to a flurry of Frozen nods, and even a Breaking Bad bit. But the smartest references are the ones that speak to the dominance of racism in our everyday lives.
Grown-ups will likely squirm uncomfortably as a fox is condescendingly called “articulate,” a sheep’s hair is touched without her consent, and our heroine bunny tells us that “cute” is a word only bunnies can call other bunnies. Most of these microagressions are gently called out within the film, suggesting how these little acts can be profoundly dehumanizing. These and more dramatic examples of racism (bullying, violence, and disenfranchisement) build to a daring reveal: we’re all a little bit racist. Even our hero bunny cop.
In a pivotal moment, Judy says something ignorant about predators, spurring Nick to not only call her out, but also cut her out of his life. It’s a move the internet often employs. Someone says something offensive, and like a great wave the web descends on them, hoping to smash them and their relevance to pieces. But racism isn’t relegated to villains, not in the real world and not in Zootopia. It’s just not that simple. Judy has to learn why her comments about “them” were ignorant, hurtful, and damaging. Witnessing the effect of her off-the-cuff remarks, she decides to fix things, not by clearing her name or claiming she was taken out of context, but by apologizing sincerely, striving to do better, and re-teaming with her understanding fox friend to heal the rift she’s caused in Zootopia society.
In the end, Judy spells all this out in a lengthy but heartwarming voiceover. She explains we’re all different. We all make mistakes. And “glass half full”, that is something we all have in common. So, we should be patient with each other. That doesn’t mean letting people off the hook for their mistakes. Like Nick and Judy do, if you see something say something, kids! But it also doesn’t mean writing someone off for those mistakes, because even the best of us sometimes needs a second chance or a chance to grow.
Sure to speak to kids and grown-ups alike, Zooptopia unfolds a poignant lesson about how prejudice can hurt people, but also how it can be overcome. And it does all this in a wonderfully fun film with big laughs, clever casting (did I mention Kristen Bell has a cameo as a sloth?), and delightful animation that boasts photo-real textures, telling physicality, and undeniable verve. And as a bonus: Zootopia sets up a charismatic critter partnership that could easily carry a thrilling and fun animated franchise I’d actually be happy to see.