Disney makes a buddy-cop mystery movie that’s actually an allegory for racism and prejudice. This is not immediately evident from the opening scenes, which introduce us to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, adorably plucky) and her dream of becoming the first bunny on the Zootopia police force. You couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this was going to be another dip into the following your dreams/you can be anything you set your mind on balm that Disney pumps into us all. Then it suddenly shifts within the first twenty minutes into a clear story saying what we needed loudly proclaimed in 2016: that xenophobia and prejudices are harmful and must be combatted for the betterment of our society.
Zootopia is richest when cracking jokes and making complex issues digestible for the kiddies in its target audience, even if it occasionally does play against its own better judgement. There’s a few instances of the film making unintentional cases for stereotypes being stereotypes for reasons, and the entirety of Zootopia is broken apart into various environs. That’s right, even in this post-predator/prey binary society the types of animals don’t completely interact together with these separate communities. This last fact isn’t commented upon as such, and it does feel like a failing of the film to entirely engage with it.
But Zootopia is strong enough in several other areas to overcome these problems, mainly in the rapid-fire jokes and leading characters. Judy Hopps is a refreshing continuation of Disney’s recent penchant for crafting female heroines that want anything but a prince and a happily ever after. Hopps puts her entire focus into being a cop, being a damn good one too, serving her city, doing what’s right, and trying to overcome her own prejudices. That she’s partnered with a sly fox (Jason Bateman, snark personified) is a smart move, and their chemistry as characters creates numerous moments of great friction-heavy friendship. Eventually they’re revealed as kindred spirits, but they took different paths to the obstacles and traumas of their childhoods.
Don’t think that this is a heavily sermonizing film though, it’s refreshingly crisp and hilarious. A personal favorite humorous side character is Tommy Chong’s nudist Yax, there’s a great payoff as to why a sloth is nicknamed Flash, and an opening verbal gag about learning to settle and be complacent as the reason for happiness. Zootopia is also just gorgeous to take in, with visual gags and great details packed into every frame. Disney’s resurgence is most deeply felt in films like this, Wreck-It Ralph, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Lilo & Stitch. Zootopia comfortably sits alongside those films as a very bright spot in the studio’s recent output.