The first thing you need to know about Disney’s Zootopia: it’s funny. It’s also clever, very witty, beautifully animated, and has a lot to say about life. In short, it’s more than just a cute idea–it’s a crime film, a comedy, and ultimately, a surprisingly deep study of what it means to be, well, human.
“In Zootopia, anyone can be anything.” This is the city’s motto, and it’s also the personal mantra that guides Judy Hopps (a winning vocal performance by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who longs to be more than a carrot farmer. Determined to be the world’s first bunny cop, she works hard to graduate head of her class at the academy and is recognized by Zootopia’s mayor with a plum assignment right in the heart of the city.
But once she gets there, she realizes anyone can’t be anything. Bunnies aren’t cops. They are meter maids. The real police work is for tougher animals: water buffalos, bears, elephants, rhinos. And more than that, lemmings still follow the herd, weasels are still shifty, and foxes are–well, sly.
The question Judy faces, along with sly co-hero Nick Wilde (fantastically voiced by Jason Bateman and animated by Bobby Huth), is can they be anything? Are they more than just the sum of their DNA? Are foxes always going to be sly? Are bunnies supposed to be just cute?
The film’s plot revolves around a Chinatown-like conspiracy where the predators of Zootopia (there are only mammals here, so no reptiles or birds) are suddenly turning wild. In the world of Zootopia, this is a thing of the distant past. The idea of a predator being feral, wild, and predatory is something relegated to stories told by children in school pageants. (A very funny school pageant, which is how the film brilliantly sets up the “big idea” of the movie.)
Forced to partner with Nick to prove herself, Judy sets out to solve the case. The story really takes off there, with a very even hand between satire and seriousness. It’s at once hilarious and heartwarming, and full of visual brilliance. Each district of Zootopia is brought beautifully to life, and it’s fun seeing how the filmmakers adapt human conveniences to their animal heroes. The scene with the sloths at the DMV is justifiably funny (it’s even better than it is in the trailers), the interactions with Chief Bogo are very good (Idris Elba is perfectly cast). The extended homage to the Godfather films gets a little long, although there is something funny about the words “skunk butt rug” that even the most highbrow viewer can appreciate.
However, Zootopia is more than just a “cute animal movie.” From the outset, it becomes clear that there is a bigger message involved, one that is a bit deeper than one might expect from an animated film. However, as C.S. Lewis once said, “Sometimes children’s stories say best what needs to be said,” and that is true for the story and message of Zootopia. It becomes clear very early that filmmakers Byron Howard and Rich Moore are going for a deeper story than Disney’s last animals-in-clothing film (Robin Hood).
It’s a parable of co-existence and tolerance that even the youngest kids in the audience will understand. (At one point Judy reminds someone that only bunnies are allowed to call each other “cute.” Make of that what you will.) It really begins to hit home after a big break in the case. After priding herself on working closely with Nick (who reveals a truly traumatic moment from his childhood) and helping him see that he can be more than just a sly fox, more than just a predator, Judy gets a chance to speak to the press.
In a scene that is uncomfortably accurate during our current political climate, Judy herself pushes the idea that perhaps the predators are only ever going to be that, causing widespread panic and prejudice, fanned by a press that wants to acerbate the situation with buzzwords and rhetoric. It’s an “us vs. them” mentality that is present at every political rally, and something that causes the fantasy world of Zootopia to hit pretty darn close to home.
Prejudice is apolitical. One party or movement doesn’t have the corner on it. Whether you are liberal or conservative, black or white, religious or not, you have some sort of prejudice in you. And this is the achievement of Disney’s latest animated film: it gets everyone to ask some really big questions about our prejudices and misconceptions. It’s a timely message, deftly presented with humor and grace.
Are we more than the product of our DNA? Can we see our neighbors and the people in our towns as something more? This is the big question that Judy and Nick must wrestle with, that the citizens of Zootopia must face. It’s also the big question Zootopia forces us to ask ourselves.