When Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Comprised of habitat neighborhoods like ritzy Sahara Square and frigid Tundratown, it’s a melting pot where animals from every environment live together-a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything.
Disney’s latest animated film is laugh-out-loud amusing, exciting, gorgeously animated and has a worthwhile message about tolerance. Creaky animal puns aren’t going to cut it. Zootopia is like the baseline version of a Disney effort-crisp and colorful animation, an intriguing lead character and a wafer-thin story, all in service of a slippery but presumably ennobling message of acceptance. Try not smiling as the filmmakers introduce audiences to the title city of Zootopia, which is sectioned off into geographic boroughs: Artic, rain forest, desert and metropolitan. And it’s an allegory about the need for tolerance and understanding in a quietly racist society where xenophobia and fear of the other are recast as the tension between predators and prey.
Movie buffs and adults will get chuckles from the film’s many references to classic movies, most prominently “The Godfather” and “Chinatown”. As are the jokes about such societal annoyances as Department of Motor Vehicles lines. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case of the missing Emmitt Otterton and six other mammals, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), to solve the mystery.
A clever procedural rolls out from there, with the pair’s discoveries ensnaring the office of the lion mayor (J.K. Simmons) and his sheep assistant (Jenny Slate) in scandal. Underneath all of its cuteness is a serious message about racism and stereotypes.
Using animals to tell kid-friendly stories that dispense important life lessons is a practice as old as Aesop. That is a surprising and welcome choice for a children’s movie, especially one from a company as traditionally risk-averse as Disney. Still, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and the team of writers never stray too far from the lively central storyline, and the main characters are likable and multi-dimensional, with Goodwin and Bateman giving them the right mix of sass and sweetness.
So what is Disney’s utopian-anthropomorphic-setting all about?