One wouldn’t think that predators and prey would be able to peacefully co-exist, but Disney’s Zootopia posits a world where animals have evolved past their primal instincts to develop a peaceful, idyllic society where anyone can be anything. Growing up on a carrot farm, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) takes that motto to heart – she dreams of becoming the first bunny to join the ranks of the Zootopia Police Department, and after graduating at the top of her class in the academy, a career in law enforcement seems ripe for the taking.
Unfortunately for Judy, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) isn’t impressed by her performance, nor by her overwhelmingly positive attitude. He’s been forced to bring her onboard by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), and like most of the other officers – all of whom are rhinos, elephants, and other large mammals – the Chief thinks that bunnies have no place on the force. He relegates the rookie rabbit to parking duty just to keep her occupied, but when Judy gets hustled by a con artist named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), she sees an opportunity to prove her worth by convincing the conniving fox to help her investigate a series of disappearances.
Zootopia‘s multi-layered mystery unfolds in classic film noir fashion, and cinephiles will notice more than a few references to masterpieces such as Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, both of which producer Clark Spencer have cited as key influences. But the film also falls squarely into buddy-cop territory, with Judy and Nick encountering a succession of hilarious supporting characters, including a hippie-dippy yak (voiced in pitch perfect fashion by Tommy Chong) and the well-publicized army of sloths who manage the local DMV.
Amongst all the laughs – and there are many – Zootopia also explores themes of diversity, inclusion, empowerment and most notably, prejudice. Despite the fact that animals are no longer eating each other, many still live in fear of predators, and that fear can manifest itself in some pretty hateful ways. This is heavy material for an animated film, but presented in a manner that should resonate with young and old alike – especially considering the current social climate. When an opportunistic character turns panic and intolerance into a political platform late in the film’s second act, it feels eerily familiar – and it should, because we’re seeing the same thing on the nightly news.
Byron Howard and Rich Moore, along with co-director Jared Bush, have crafted one of Walt Disney Animation’s best films since the studio’s heyday in the early 90s. It may lack the memorable music of Frozen or the fairy-tale whimsy of Tangled, but the studio’s continued technical strides – this is the most beautiful animated feature they’ve produced yet – along with a brilliant blend of satire, seriousness and social commentary make Zootopia the perfect family film for today’s audience.