The most stirring, imaginative, tightly plotted, and politically engaged cop movie in years is also Disney’s newest animated film. Zootopia is among their best work: a spirited and emotional cartoon driven by charm and style, with lovely design and impressive technology put to use for an entirely satisfying story doing double duty as a winning allegory. It’s a most pleasant surprise, single-handedly recovering two tired genres: the anthropomorphic animal comedy and the police thriller. For the former it takes the snark and laziness out of a tired CG family film formula, and for the latter it retrieves the humanity from a collection of clichés. It’s everything family entertainment should be, a widely appealing all-ages crowd-pleaser, inventive and delightful, but unafraid to confront important issues and impart virtuous lessons without becoming condescending or cloying. This is a wonderful movie.
It takes place in a world exactly like ours transmogrified into a society of anthropomorphized animals living in a post-predator/prey utopia. Or so they think. Carnivores and herbivores live side-by-side in relative peace, going about their days like we do, wearing clothes, going to work, staring at smart phones, browsing shops, driving cars, eating out, listening to pop music, and so on. (I assume they’re all vegan.) We meet Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, chipper and loveably bubbly) a brave, energetic, and optimistic young bunny who moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a police officer, despite prejudice against her meek and agrarian species. She’d be the first rabbit officer in Zootopia’s history. She’s excited to dream big and try hard no matter what, kissing her sweet farmer folks (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) goodbye and heading to a bustling metropolis like something out of a Richard Scarry tableau. Once there, she’s disappointed to be stuck patrolling parking meters while the bigger, scarier animals – elephants, bears, rhinos – get to do the important work. It’s a world full of bias and discrimination, and it’s allowed to hurt, and frustrate.
She gets a lucky break when her literally and figuratively bullheaded boss (Idris Elba), eager to get rid of what he sees as an annoying diversity hire, gives her 48 hours to solve a missing mammal case that’s baffled his veteran officers for weeks. Her only lead: a sly con man fox (Jason Bateman, brash sarcasm barely covering core decency) who may be able to help her navigate the city’s shadier corners. The movie becomes a terrific detective story as the reluctant mismatched partners, with a delightfully prickly rapport, attempt to unravel the mystery plaguing Zootopia. Along the way they pick up clues and informants and encounter a wide range of characters across all social groups, like a zen naturist yak (Tommy Chong), a weaselly criminal (Alan Tudyk), a rodent gangster (Maurice LaMarche), a meek sheep (Jenny Slate), and the commanding lion mayor (J.K. Simmons). The engaging mystery is full of genuine danger, suspense, and surprises. No cartoon violence here; when, say, a panther leaps in rage at our protagonists, slipping on the edge of a cliff, it’s as exciting and involving as any live action thriller.
Part of its thrill comes from the totally convincing sense of fantastical place. Zootopia is a fully developed city, so much so that watching the film hurtle through its neighborhoods feels like visiting a completely thought-through world. Disney’s animators bring it to brilliantly realized life, having figured out a way to make a metropolis convincingly populated by both giraffes and hamsters, hippos and mice. There are tiny neighborhoods for rats and massive structures for elephants, ice-cold mountains for polar bears and sweltering valleys for camels. Structures have tiny doors for teeny critters and massive entrances for lumbering beasts. It’s a vibrant, colorful, warm place dense with creative energy and detailed design, with puns and winks referencing our world without going overboard. There’s a sense you could turn a corner away from the scene at hand and stumble into another fully functioning aspect of animal society elsewhere. And the characters involved are expertly animated expressive creatures covered in dazzling textures (the fuzziest luxurious fur!) and imbued with nuanced vocal performances, humane even, with inner lives and their own points of view.
It’s not a movie that dawdles through its worldbuilding, though. It uses this bounty of imagination to bolster a genre narrative that’s zippy and appealing. It’s cute, bright, and exciting, an involving story happening to characters whose feelings are rich and vividly drawn. We follow the bunny and the fox (squint a little and it’s Thumper and Robin Hood) through chases and close calls, dramatic twists, and sweetly developing friendship. They’re adorable and relatable, quick witted and great company. And the script is nicely structured with payoffs to every setup. The movie finds great fun and emotion even as it pushes further into its implications. Lots of Disney’s best behind the scenes talent, responsible for many of their best recent efforts – directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), co-writing with Phil Johnston (also Ralph), Jennifer Lee (Frozen), and Jared Bush – find nuance in approaching the characters from compassionate angles, allowing our initial assumptions about them to be overturned in smart, natural ways.
It’s a fine allegory for identity politics, teased out in surprisingly nuanced, thoughtful scenes in which characters deal with bullying and confusion that stings. Each in the duo is given a childhood memory – an origin for confronting prejudice that’s seared with pain on their developing minds, and becomes a fulcrum deciding their future. The solution to their conflict sits with their ability to slowly recognize this and strive for a productive balance between naivety and cynicism. Of course, you can’t make species and race a 1:1 comparison. The first is classification, the second is a construct, and these evolved animals have long-buried predator/prey instincts we don’t within the human race. But as a safe funhouse mirror through which to view the impact of discrimination, it’s potent. And yet none of this design or messaging gets in the way of a whip-smart and endlessly entertaining romp. It’s light on its feet, but weighty where it matters. The movie forcefully and comfortably celebrates leaving space to allow every creature to surprise you, and has a steadfast faith in your species not determining your character.