Film Review: Zootopia

Delightful Disney animated tale of a city populated by “civilized” animals of all stripes is both fun for kids and a clever mélange of noir and social commentary.
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As Pixar basks in its Oscar win for last summer’s bracingly inventive Inside Out, its reinvigorated sister division, Disney Animation, can also celebrate another smashing success to join the ranks of Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Zootopia is that rare animated feature children and adults will enjoy equally, one that works on multiple levels of both thematic sophistication and pure fun. It combines smart social commentary with valuable life lessons for its younger viewers, and also somehow manages to be one of the best detective films we’re likely to see this year.

The wild premise (credited to no fewer than seven story writers, usually a red flag) is that the predators and prey of the animal kingdom have evolved to a status in which they’ve overcome their fear and antagonism and live in relative harmony, with behavior similar to humans (who don’t actually exist in this movie’s imaginary mirror world). The titular Zootopia is a sprawling metropolis consisting of different enclaves accommodating the needs and lifestyles of its various species: Sahara Square for desert creatures, a snowy tundra, a rainforest, and even a miniature community for rodents.

Then there’s Bunnyburrow, where rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) lives with her 275 brothers and sisters. The family business is carrot farming, yet Judy has always dreamed of being a police officer—an unprecedented ambition for a bunny. But the determined cottontail manages to graduate at the top of her class at the police academy and is assigned to Zootopia’s busiest precinct—where’s she promptly relegated to writing out parking tickets. On that beat, she encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly fox who’s a most efficient con artist. Judy blackmails Nick into becoming her investigative partner when she finally nabs a case: the disappearance of Mr. Otterton, part of a rash of mammal abductions. The only hitch: Judy’s antagonistic Cape buffalo chief has given her just 48 hours to solve the crime or she’ll be obliged to resign from the force.

At this point, Zootopia turns into noir-ish procedural with echoes of Raymond Chandler, as Judy and Nick explore the many subcultures of the city and the mystery becomes murkier and more fraught with danger. Accompanying all those retro shadings is a contemporary take on stereotyping and political correctness; Judy’s crusade to be taken seriously as a cop is the movie’s prime example of a character fighting preconceptions. (And, hey, only a bunny can call another bunny “cute”—got that?) Can a fox like Nick ever be trusted? Can a predator truly reform? Can a sloth make the lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles move any faster? (The answer to that last one is a decided no, in one of the movie’s most prolonged and hilarious set-pieces.)

The vast range of settings in Zootopia is a challenge the animation and design teams led by directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) meet with delirious creativity; Judy’s initial train ride through the districts of Zootopia is a fast-moving riot of glancing details. And the casting of the two leads is ideal: Goodwin (“Once Upon a Time,” “Big Love”) finds the perfect combination of ingenuousness, enthusiasm and resolve without ever being cloying, and Bateman brings his trademark acerbic dryness to the slippery fox and budding hero. Standouts in the supporting voice cast include Idris Elba as the imposing Chief Bogo, Nate Torrence as an easily distracted, pop-culture-obsessed precinct receptionist, Jenny Slate as the put-upon sheep who’s assistant mayor, and Maurice LaMarche as a most surprising mob boss out of a certain 1970s movie classic. Colombian pop idol Shakira plays Gazelle, Zootopia’s biggest music star, and the catchy song that fuels her big production number over the end credits sends the audience out on a high. But then again, there aren’t any low points in this lively revival of cartoon anthropomorphism.

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