To understand Zootopia is to understand one specific scene you’d never expect to see in a kid’s film, much less a Disney movie. At one point during newly-minted cop Judy Hopps’s (voiced with enthusiastic glee by Ginnifer Goodwin) investigation into the disappearance of an otter (one of a dozen missing animals) leads her to an awkward encounter at — wait for it — a nudist colony. Aside from the hysterical sequence in the sloth-infested DMV Disney introduced us to during the initial full trailer, this has to be the funniest, if not the weirdest scene in the film, mostly because of the reactions clothed animals have toward their naked counterparts. The real reason it works is the reason the entire film hits all the right notes — writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, who sprinkle the script with so much wry, ironic humor, they make cringe-inducing absurdity feel right at home alongside honest, genuine emotion and… racial commentary? Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
The fun begins when Judy’s just a little bunny, narrating the history of the animal kingdom and their evolution to a civilized society in a cute little stage play. Describing the way predators attacked their prey, Judy uses red ribbons and ketchup to denote spraying, sputtering blood. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which jumps right into Judy realizing her dream of becoming a cop after defeating the impossible tasks she’s faced with in her trip through the police academy. Judy’s drive and unwillingness to give up get her assigned to the most prominent police division in the city of Zootopia… and immediately becomes a meter maid. Judy makes the most of this lackluster assignment by making it her goal to write tickets faster than a hare.
It’s only when a distraught otter (Octavia Spencer) urges the police to help find her husband (the aforementioned otter) that Judy gets her chance to shine as a real police officer. Hating that the mayor, Lionhart (J.K. Simmons), has made it his mission to integrate more diversity into the lives the city’s citizens, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) gives her 48 hours to locate the otter or else resign from the force. Judy agrees to the challenge, and upon receiving the one-page case file, finds her first clue. It seems the otter has a connection to a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), whom she met conning the owner of a ice-cream shop for an elephant-sized Popsicle that he subsequently melts down to make his own mini Popsicles to sell on the street. Judy uses his own wily tricks to recruit — nay, blackmail — Nick into helping her locate the otter.
All of the voice actors do a terrific job building relationships with their own characters, as well as everyone else on screen. No one is expendable, not even the side characters that really have nothing to do in relation to the plot, but fill a much deeper meaning within the film. You see, Zootopia isn’t just a cop procedural, or a kidnapping mystery, or a cute little comedy. Bush and Johnston infuse the film with layers of current affairs. Race relations is the most obvious, as we see a conflict build between the predatory animals and what’s deemed to be their prey, the heart of which is the tension between Judy and Nick.
Fearing their baby girl might get hurt in the big city, Judy’s parents (Don Lake & Bonnie Hunt) give her Fox Repellent, which is basically pepper spray for bunnies. Judy doesn’t like the idea of carrying around something that is so “racially” biased, as her view of Zootopia is so utopian, but she carries it anyway just in case, which leads to a moment of the film that is quite affecting. There are other biases, prejudices, racial tensions and political maneuvering that occur during the film (including moving the front desk officer to the evidence locker simply because he’s a “predator” and may scare people if that’s the first thing they see; or making Judy the “face” of the police force because she’s “cute” and harmless), but it’s never blatant or preachy. It simply uses the current atmosphere of our world to tell their story and deliver a fun, intelligent piece of entertainment.
And that includes very organic comedy, which stems directly from character and plot. I will say, there are a lot of easy jokes that Bush and Johnston hit you over the head with, from all of the references to bunnies multiplying and movie references that will go over the little one’s heads but slap a nice smile on the faces of their parents. But they still work, mostly because there are plenty of other things that help them rise above the knowing jokes. There’s one action sequence in particular that’s perfectly executed. When a weasel (Alan Tudyk) steals some crops from a store, he leads Judy (who’s in hot pursuit) into mouse town, one of several districts that make up the metropolis of Zootopia (which also includes the rain forest district and the the tundra district). Everything in mouse town is scaled down, of course, making it feel as if we’ve entered some faux Godzilla movie, with Judy acting as the giant lizard saving the mice from the weasel’s Mothra.
Which brings me to my final point. Bush and Johnston do a really good job of making sure that nothing in the film isn’t wasted. Plot wise, the connections are well-done and complete. There are very few, if any, plot holes or missed opportunities and all the subplots are wrapped up nicely, including an awesome tag at the end of the film. When Disney released that first trailer, I remarked that if the rest of the film was as funny and intelligent as that DMV scene, Zootopia would be a terrific film. I’m happy to say that Zootapia hits it out of the park, joining Bolt, Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 as part of Disney’s catalog of recent classics that have nothing to do with Pixar.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Perfect Match, The Young Messiah and The Brothers Grimsby. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.