I should have remembered that, in addition to the classic fairy tales of Tangled and Frozen, this is also the studio that has given us, in the last few years, the amazing Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 -- both of which I was just as skeptical about in the beginning, but which became instant favorites. Zootopia is definitely a worthy successor to those.
Like a lot of Disney’s other recent offerings, you have to start with the worldbuilding, which is incredible. This is a world where animals have evolved past their primitive instincts and learned to exist peacefully together — prey and predator, side by side. The center of the movie’s universe, the metropolis of Zootopia, contains a big urban area surrounded by several “districts” (no relation to Panem districts), including Sahara Square, Tundratown, Little Rodentia, and the Rainforest District. Little Rodentia is my favorite, because it’s entirely inhabited by (and scaled for) mice and squirrels and such. One of the movie’s chase scenes goes through this area, and it distinctly reminded me of the “model village” scene in Hot Fuzz. Only without anyone being impaled.
Our main character is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from Bunnyburrow who dreams of becoming a police officer, a dream which everyone thinks is ridiculous for some reason. But Judy is a trier, and she montages her way through police training, graduating at the top of her class and becoming the first rabbit police officer in Zootopia. Her hiring is, from the outset, clearly seen as a token gesture (part of the Mammal Inclusion Initiative) and instead of getting real assignments like the rest of the department, she is reduced to basically a meter maid. Most of the movie is her teaming up with a wily fox named Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) to find out what happened to some missing mammals.
Aside from the achievement of making a talking animal movie fresh and interesting, the real feat to me is that the writers weave a very sweet and timely message about fear and bigotry into the story without making it feel too heavy-handed or pasted on (and I almost typed it “PASTEDE ON” just now because some memes NEVER DIE). And the fact that the main character is a police officer makes it all the more culturally relevant. I wonder how this will age the movie when people watch it twenty years from now, though I fear it will be as relevant as ever. At any rate, when this movie gets real, it gets REAL. There are also little moments in the movie that reinforce the message in a more everyday way (like Nick consistently touching Bellweather’s wool, which is completely that thing where white people are obsessed with black people’s hair and want to touch it and don’t understand that it’s WEIRD AND NOT OKAY).
There is some great voice acting in this movie, and I love that, for the most part, people aren’t doing “voices”; the actors were cast because of who they were. In addition to Goodwin and Bateman, J.K. Simmons plays Mayor Lionheart, Idris Elba plays police chief (and cape buffalo) Bogo, Tommy Chong plays a hippie yak named Yax, Shakira is pop sensation Gazelle, Kristen Bell has a tiny role as one of the sloths who works at the DMV, Nate Torrance is my almost-favorite character Clawhauser, and Jenny Slate is my absolute favorite character, Assistant Mayor Bellweather. Bonnie Hunt even does a voice in this, as Judy’s mom.
I was also glad to see Disney continue its streak of great girl characters with Judy, who is kickass without having to be masculine and who is wonderfully complicated. Just don’t call her cute, because only other bunnies are supposed to call bunnies that. :P My one disappointment with her was that Disney *also* continued its streak of female characters who look EXACTLY THE SAME. I’m convinced they only made her a bunny so they could do the giant eyes and tiny nose face AGAIN. You can do better, Disney. You used to do better. (They get a few points back, though, for giving her Elizabeth Taylor-esque violet eyes, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on an animated character. They’re kind of stunning.)
As for the nerdy stuff … there are so many little jokes and gags. Breaking Bad references, at least one Frozen joke, tons of Godfather riffs … I even think they paid an homage to Speed, for crying out loud. It makes me want to go back and see it again just to catch what I missed.
A very enjoyable — nay, delightful — movie that I suspect will resonate more with older kids and adults than younger kids, but there’s plenty that little kids will enjoy as well. OH. But I should warn anyone who’s planning to take small children — I’ve heard of at least one parent having to take their kid out because of something scary.
One last thing. Heaven help us when the Furries get a hold of this movie. I’m just saying. I’m guessing most people reading this know what that is. If you don’t, FOR GOODNESS SAKE DON’T GOOGLE IT.