Review: 'Zootopia'

Disney's 'Zootopia' lampoons the human political world-with animals.
FOX AND HARE: The odd couple of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) team up to solve a mystery in 'Zootopia.'

Prejudice is the theme of Disney's marvelous animated comedy, Zootopia. The higher the concept, the more writers end up credited, but this much rewritten Zootopia doesn't play that way. The sting and spice is visible in a clue in the title—it's indeed a utopian fantasy of the lion laying down with the lamb, at least for political reasons.

"I think he was trying to win the sheep votes," says Ms. Bellwether (Jenny Slate of Obvious Child), voicing the dithering assistant mayor to Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons of Whiplash), who wears an impeccably tailored suit while overseeing his city of animals—Zootopia. A ewe herself, Ms. Bellwether has a keen sense of when Lionheart is pandering to her genus.

Far out in the sticks, the appealing bunny, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), wants to grow up to be a police officer, instead of a carrot farmer like her hundreds of brothers and sisters. After a bruising stint in the police academy, she joins Zootopia's police force. But thanks to the scorn of Chief Bogo (a Cape Buffalo voiced by Idris Elba), Judy is busted down to meter maid duty—relegated to roaming the streets of Zootopia, with its polychrome skyscrapers, which resemble a kid's drawing of Las Vegas.

Hopps can't get no respect, least of all from the ever-smiling, gently crooked fox she meets on her beat—Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). He's a slouchy character in shirttails and a semi-knotted tie. The fox carries out short-cons with the help of his fennec pal, who pretends to be a candy-seeking infant.

The plot starts to get thick and scary in the best Disney manner. Predators—a 10 percent minority in this peaceable kingdom—are starting to vanish. Judy wants to investigate. Nick has some clues, and the mystery starts leading the dynamic duo nearer to Zootopia's most powerful players. When Judy gaffs up a press conference, the city panics at the thought of carnivores reverting to their "biological nature" by going wild and attacking prey animals. It's a specieist explanation of the mystery. In the terms of this satire, the explanation is akin to a politician ascribing a racial basis to crime.

Zootopia isn't about "sorority racism," to use Chris Rock's term. It's about deeper, dirtier stuff—the darkest suspicions and fears, lurking in the medulla. Savaged by a schoolyard bully fox when she was young, Judy still has a buried terror; her nose twitches sometimes in the presence of a predator, even if the law of tooth and claw has long since been superseded in Zootopia.

Judy and Nick get along so well that you'd think they'd been the heroes of a dozen previous cartoons. They complement each other—the vulpine hustle and playfulness meets rabbity litheness, as well as that very considerable power of being underestimated because of looking cute.

The chases are whirlwind fast—in hot pursuit of a weasel (Alan Tudyk), Judy heads into the rodent town where even the six-story buildings are so small they can be tumbled like dominoes, and cars become roller skates. The fox and hare investigate a yoga retreat run by a hippie yak (Tommy Chong) with a halo of flies; they track down a Hispanic-accented jaguar (Jesse Corti, in what I'd hope is a tribute to the accent of the bored jaguar in Nick Park's "Creature Comforts"). There's reliable comic relief from a fey cheetah desk sergeant (Nate Torrence) who worships the town's musical diva, Gazelle (voiced by Shakira).

Zootopia is not all puns and movie parodies, though a bit about a mole Godfather finds some hilarity despite the overworked material. It becomes most fascinating when it turns out to be about the political use of a crisis—perfect entertainment for this election year. It's outwardly message-y, and for once that's a good thing, since the film has so much weight in characterization, dialogue and feeling. Zootopia has its meta-side: "Life isn't a cartoon musical where you sing a song and all your insipid dreams come true." It acknowledges problems that no bumper-sticker can patch over, and yet it leaves room for an exploration of a seriously charming world.

PG; 108 Mins.

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