Once upon a time, we learn early in Disney’s marvelous new animated film Zootopia, the animal world was divided into predators and prey. Now, thankfully, those days are long past and all mammals have “multitudinous opportunities” to pursue their lives in whatever way they wish.
The medium by which this message is conveyed is a school play written and performed by young Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). And, like most school plays, its rosy take on the world is not entirely accurate. No sooner is the performance over than Judy’s parents—did I mention that she, and they, are rabbits?—begin trying to talk down her ambition to one day become a police officer. “If you don’t try anything new, you’ll never fail,” explains her dad, recommending that she follow his path—and that of her 275 brothers and sisters—and become a carrot farmer.
But Judy holds on to her dreams, and when she comes of age she moves to the big city, Zootopia, enlists in the police academy, and becomes the first-ever bunny officer. Yet the life lessons continue to accumulate when the police chief (a cape buffalo voiced by Idris Elba) assigns her to parking duty, rather than allow her to work on the case of 14 mammals of different species who’ve gone missing in the city. However, with the reluctant help of a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) … well, I suspect you get the general idea.
The film that unfolds from these beginnings is in many ways a conventional one, but it unfolds with so much wit, panache, and visual ingenuity that it outstrips many a more high-concept movie. Its lessons about tolerance, diversity, and racial profiling may be familiar, but they are delivered with a conviction that is never cloying and frequently a touch subversive. (As when Judy describes Nick as “articulate,” or patiently explains, “A bunny can call another bunny ‘cute,’ but when someone who’s not a bunny …”)
Visually, the film is a giddy delight, bright and inventive. Given the wildly varying sizes of their mammalian cast—from hamster to rhino—the directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and the co-director Jared Bush have particular fun with scale and perspective. One moment Judy is too small for her world, unable to reach the rim of the police department toilet without leaping; the next she is too large, rampaging through the Habitrails of Zootopia’s “Little Rodentia” neighborhood. And don’t get me started on the movie’s joyously wicked sendup of The Godfather, in which Mr. Big, a tiny arctic shrew, attends his daughter’s wedding surrounded by gargantuan polar-bear heavies.
The vocal cast—which also includes J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, and Alan Tudyk—is excellent across the board, with particular props (hops?) due to Goodwin and Bateman. And the movie is pleasingly dotted with winking allusions to material as varied as Breaking Bad and Disney’s own Frozen. We meet a pop star named merely “Gazelle” (Shakira) and a nudist Yak voiced by Tommy Chong. And we visit the Zootopia DMV, which is staffed entirely by—of course—sloths.
I’ve written on a few occasions about the recent decline of Pixar—yes, Inside Out was an exception, but four of the studio’s next five planned films are sequels—and I’ve speculated that the letdown may in part be due to the fact that the chief creative officer John Lasseter is now also in charge of overseeing Walt Disney Animation Studios. The flip side of that unhappy coin is that Disney’s movies have been getting better and better, from Bolt to Tangled to Frozen to Big Hero Six. (I was not a fan of Wreck-It Ralph, though I recognize I’m an outlier in this regard.) Zootopia may be the best of the bunch: sharp, charming, and flat-out fun. If Pixar hopes to reestablish itself as the top name in animation (the studio’s Finding Dory is due out in June), it has its work cut out for it.