The city of Zootopia may seem to be utopian and evolved with all kinds of animals living in harmony, but all is not what it seems in this world.
In the midst of a polarizing political climate comes a sharp commentary from Disney in the form of an animated movie. Zootopia manages to cut sharply through the prejudice, racism and xenophobia in the air by using a classic detective story, a touch of heart and drama and plenty of pop culture zingers. These animals have evolved beyond the divisions of predator and prey. After all, this is now a utopia, and that "savage" environment is now in the past.
At least, that is the tale that young rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) tells in a play at the talent show of the local festival in rural Bunnyburrow. Shortly after recounting that this evolution has allowed her to dream of one day becoming a police officer, Judy realizes that maybe some prejudice still exists. Judy notices sheep friends of hers being picked on so she intervenes. Gideon Grey, a backwoods bully of a fox, cuts her face with his claws, telling her that she'll never be a cop, but Judy succeeds in getting back her friends' tickets.
Fast forward fifteen years to Judy in the police academy. Using her smarts to overcome every obstacle to her small size, she graduates as valedictorian of her class. The mayor of Zootopia, Leodore Lionheart (J. K. Simmons), is over the moon that their diversity initiatives are working -- a not-so-subtle nod to affirmative action and other such initiatives in many a company -- and happily presents Judy her badge. After a bittersweet goodbye to her family, Judy makes her move to the big city of Zootopia, excited to finally start living her dream.
But things don't go her way when on the first day at work, Judy's boss -- a cape buffalo simply called Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) -- doles out the cases but assigns her to parking duty. Trying to make the best of her situation, Judy hands out parking tickets left and right. While on meter maid duty, she notices a fox walking into an ice cream parlor and follows him, as he looks suspicious.
Upon entering the building, though, she realizes that he is harmless and in fact simply trying to buy a popsicle for his son as a birthday gift. The owner of the parlor refuses to serve him, as foxes have a reputation for being sly criminals. Judy defends him and even purchases the popsicle for him. He introduces himself as Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and thanks her for her kindness.
When he leaves, she realizes that he's actually a con man and that is his "son" is just his partner in his scam. When she confronts him about it, he not only says that he has to hustle to make a living but also bursts her bubble of positivity. Judy returns to her duties, begrudging that she isn't going to achieve her dream of actually doing some good in the world as a cop, but an opportunity soon presents itself when a weasel steals from a produce store. Judy gives chase and arrests him, but instead of receiving the praise that she expected, Chief Bogo fires her.
Before she can turn in her badge, an otter comes in because her husband is missing. Bogo says that there are no available detectives to work the case so Judy volunteers to do it. Reluctant at first, Bogo agrees to let her handle the case under the condition that she resign if she doesn't find the missing otter in 48 hours. To Judy's lament, the case file is basically empty, but in the single image associated with it, she notices one Nick Wilde in the background and finds her first lead.
As the story continues on, lead after lead, audiences are drawn into the clever, creative world of Zootopia. From juice bars and nudist colonies to phone apps and celebrities, the pop culture references are abundant and wonderfully crafted to fit the animal world. Mixed in with the great dialogue, the film definitely gets in plenty of chuckles and laughs with its jokes that manage to be both smart and modern for adults and easy to understand for kids.
Following that same vein is the overarching anti-bigotry message: one that is so well-balanced in the drama. The narrative fleshes out the characters so much that one can't help but hurt at the tales of childhood trauma, the betrayal of prejudicial ideology and the ultimate reconciliation. It's not cheap, and it's not melodramatic. It's such a realistic pain that these characters suffer, making it easy for audiences, young and old alike, to empathize and see the real-life application of the theme. It lands especially well with the delightful animation (check out Flash the sloth's facial expressions). Zootopia's combination of a tried-and-true story with smart humor and a touch of drama to drive its timely subject matter home makes it one of the few children's movies that is perfect, and for all ages, at that.
Images courtesy of Disney.