Walt Disney Animation Studios is on something of an upswing at the moment. As the animation house that Walt built, Disney’s original creative nexus maintains a legacy that spans from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to 2013’s equally childhood-defining Frozen. And after that latter effort—as well as Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6—there are plenty of lofty expectations on their newly rejuvenated brand. Yet, what makes Zootopia so appealing is that this latest effort is a step away from those expectations, and an embrace of something much more contemporary.
Instead of being a fairy tale or an earnest superhero extravaganza, Zootopia is a buddy cop film, or rather a bunny cop one. Because yes, the urban landscape of the title is a sparkling metropolis of clothes-wearing, movie-parodying, and anthropomorphic critters that all behave like some of our best and worst stereotypes. But with the use of adorable animal animation for good clean, all ages fun, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore find room for an actually quite cunning and important bit of social satire. The result is a deceptively clever movie that has timely lessons for all generational demographics.
The tale of Zootopia certainly begins innocuously enough as Ginnifer Goodwin’s Judy Hopps is just a small bunny with big dreams. Despite growing up in the countryside of Bunny Boroughs, Judy knows that the evolved and domesticated world of Zootopia offers big city thrills where predators and prey now live in harmony—and she can protect them all by becoming the first bunny cop on the Zootopia Police Force (the union is mostly made up of elephants, rhinoceroses, and water buffalo).
However, even after achieving this goal, happiness and the implicit “utopia” of Zootopia seems out of reach since Judy discovers she’s a political appointment, hired for photo-ops but otherwise treated as a glorified meter maid. To make matters worse, there is actual prejudice and discrimination in the big city where predators and prey hardly mingle, and foxes prove to initially be as untrustworthy as her parents’ stories about the “others” would suggest, particularly in the case of one Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a streetwise fox that knows all the angles and hustles Judy out of $20 after her first day on the job.
But Judy and Nick are going to join forces if Judy is going to solve the case of why 14 predators have vanished overnight—and if Nick wants her to give back incriminating evidence of him being a tax fraud. So faster than you can say 48 Hrs., Judy and Nick have 48 hours to crack the case.
The greatest asset of Zootopia is that it gleefully plays with many tropes and genre conventions in the “cops and robbers” wheelhouse that adults will know all too well. This in itself makes this film something of an oddity in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon since other than Robin Williams’ iconic Genie in Aladdin, breaking the fourth wall or anachronistic humor has usually been left for Mickey’s competitors. However, while studios like DreamWorks Animation might be using such self-aware trappings to make pop culture references that every child could get, Zootopia goes a level deeper—coupling the earnestness of the best “pursue your dreams” narratives with what essentially works as a fuzzy and furry bit of social satire.
The big city world concocted by animators here is an unsurprisingly luscious and vivid affair; Zootopia is divided into neighborhoods that include a rainforest district, a snow mountain boondocks, and even simply an area meant solely for the mice in the community. And each is brought to life with the appropriate amount of color and sparkling visuals that, while short of the studio’s more recently breathtaking fare in Ralph and Frozen, is ensured to enrapture younger eyes. However, the PG-crime story hidden within these candy colored alleys is the most welcome touch.
In addition to being a buddy cop film between an idealistic, rookie rabbit and cynical fox, Zootopia knowingly plays with elements of noir, mob movies, and even some subversive winks to parents who like to binge Breaking Bad when the kids go to bed. There is an especially cheeky homage to the first scene of The Godfather.
While all of these elements are meant to amuse the parents more than the children, it is also in service of creating an animated world with more than a simply aspirational bit of entertainment. That is there too, as Judy realizes to temper her expectations for perfection while also becoming the hero cop she dreamed about, however but there’s also some knotty considerations of racism, bigotry, and even the scapegoating of minorities at play.
Certainly standing as a great kickoff point for a family discussion about what it means to make inaccurate or hurtful prejudgments, the film might also just prove as educational for older viewers too since half of the political voters in this country seem to be falling for the same kind of mob mentality manipulation that this movie highlights with the clarity of a child.
The result is a movie that engages with a genuinely cathartic story as Judy and Nick both learn to check their “micro-aggressions” and skeptical preconceived notions about each other, as well as the larger community as a whole.
Oh and did I mention the nudist elephant colony? There is a nudist elephant colony.
So yes, on all levels, and for all ages, there is a good reason to make Zootopia a destination vacation this spring, if for nothing else than the refreshing dose of humanity found in these doe-eyed animals.
Zootopia opens Friday, March 4.