Animation has often been where things that society may not be ready to hear are often first said. Somehow it feels safer coming from an animated animal or something, and while that may seem ridiculous it's most certainly true. Disney's Zootopia is a film that is unafraid to make a bold, challenging statement amount tolerance and systemic racism, just like the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit before it years ago. That may not be what most families are going to the movies to hear, but it's a valuable message nonetheless, told with humor and intelligence by, yes, a bunch of animated animals.
Like 'Roger Rabbit', Zootopia takes place in the sprawling cityscape with an astounding level of meticulous detail. Co-directors Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Byron Howard (Tangled) have created what feels like a real, living breathing human world, with businesses, restaurants, government buildings, and more. The only difference is that it's populated by animals, more specifically, mammals, with formerly violent predators like lions and foxes live in apparent harmony with former prey like bunnies and deer. It's one of those bunnies that we are concerned with, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), one of 225 siblings born to a rural family of carrot dealers. In the history of Zootopia there has never been a bunny cop, but the ambitious, feminist (bunnies don't like being called "cute") Judy makes it her life's goal to be the first, believing the city to be a place "where anyone can be anything."
She's right, and eventually she does become a police officer, assigned by buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) to parking enforcement detail, thinking she's too weak to be handling real cases. That doesn't sit well with Judy, but she soon finds some action when she encounters sly fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is always pulling some kind of scheme. Bunnies and foxes are natural enemies, but one of the major themes is putting those differences aside, looking beyond them and judging one another on an individual basis. That said, the story is driven by a rash of animal disappearances, and it all seems to be tied into the effort to keep the natural predators domesticated. When the city's mayor is a literal lion named Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), whose assistant is a meek little ewe (Jenny Slate), this could be a politically thorny issue.
Zootopia cleverly deals with issues of racism, sexism, and overcoming societal expectations, even adopting some of the same rhetoric heard in the national discussion. Some parents may bristle when Judy refutes being a "token", or when coded words often used by racists against blacks are attributed to Wilde and other foxes, but they're woven into the screenplay by writers Phil Johnston and Jared Bush in a way that most kids won't notice. And as for adults, if they feel uncomfortable with the terminology, well, that's kind of the point. When Judy is told by her parents that foxes are untrustworthy due to their biology, the parallels to what has often been said of African-Americans should be obvious to those who have heard it all of their lives. Those people should also want to make sure their kids never use language like that, and Zootopia makes a compelling case for why.
Then again, one of the film's funniest gags, of which there are many, involves a stereotype, a couple of them actually. Hate going to the DMV because of the interminable wait times? Well then try going to one staffed only by slooooowwwwwwwwwwwwww moving sloths. Showing a Pixar-level blending of pop culture references with high-concept storytelling, Zootopia includes a mob boss modeled after Don Corleone (it's even his daughter's wedding!), and a pop star named Gazelle voiced by and clearly modeled after Shakira.
With Zootopia Disney has a new classic on their hands, one that combines memorable characters, gorgeous animation, social awareness, and a framework that can be built upon for years to come.
Rating: 4 out of 5