Family films preaching the values of tolerance are nothing new. It’s a good message, it’s easy to impart, and it’s important that young viewers understand and assimilate those values. Where Disney Animation’s excellent new film Zootopia sets itself apart is by attacking prejudice head-on. Rather than preaching or putting on kid gloves, Zootopia attempts to examine the “why” of prejudice rather than the surface elements. Through it’s clever, endearing characters, hilarious jokes, and honest sentiment, Zootopia comes away as a film that’s not only a joy to watch, but also one with a message that couldn’t feel more relevant right now.
Set in a world where predators and prey have evolved to coexist peacefully, the story follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from a small town who’s determined to be the first member of her species to be a police officer. Through her unrelenting drive and determination, she graduates from the academy with flying colors and is assigned to the thriving metropolis of Zootopia. While she’s stuck handing out parking citations, she crosses paths with the wily fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and eventually the two are forced to work together to solve the case of a missing otter.
While on the surface the plot sounds like a forgettable DreamWorks Animation picture that coasts on celebrity voices for anthropomorphic animals, Zootopia is rich, deep, and textured in a way you would rarely expect from a family film, except perhaps we should probably expect it now from Disney Animation, which has clearly hit its third golden age. After Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and now Zootopia, the studio is clearly thriving to the point where there are even jokes within Zootopia at the expense of a more traditional film like Frozen.
If anything, Zootopia may be too mature for younger viewers. I didn’t hear a lot of laughs from the kids at my screening, and it’s possible that some of the humor will go over their heads (it’s also possible I couldn’t hear them over my own laughter). And yet I would be shocked if they weren’t as charmed as the adults by the chemistry between Judy and Nick, who have a great relationship that sets them up as equals rather than straight-arrow Judy trying to play catch-up with slick grifter Nick. Most human actors have trouble nailing down this fun chemistry in live action films, and casting Bateman for Nick’s condescending, nasally tenor was a particularly inspired decision.
And if we weren’t so invested in Judy and Nick’s relationship, it would be all too easy to get lost in their surroundings. Zootopia is utterly gorgeous, and it easily deserves an Oscar nomination for production design. It’s a world where everything is so incredibly clever to the way the different animal worlds are sorted out (there’s an arctic world, there’s a tiny town for smaller creatures, etc.) and how they move around. The movie also wisely doesn’t pay much attention to how the food chain functions in this new world where animals co-exist. It knows we’ve all been trained on accepting anthropomorphic creatures, and that really they’re standing in for us as humans.
That human story is where Zootopia truly shines. Again, I’m not sure if younger viewers will pick up on the nuances of the movie, but I love that it’s there. Kids may not understand when the villain notes that predators make up 10% of the population and they should be made out to be the public enemy, but adult viewers will absolutely pick up on the racial statistics. Zootopia is fearless in showing how prejudice seeps into our daily lives and how it exists in the relationship between Judy and Nick even if they’re not willing to acknowledge it at first.
To get to this deeper point, Zootopia runs a bit long, but the payoff is absolutely worth it. Without really hammering home the why behind prejudice—particularly why some people employ it for personal gain and use it to scare the masses—the movie would still be light, funny, and totally fine. It’s got a catchy pop song and a nice message about working to achieve your dreams. But because directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush worked harder and pushed further, they’ve made Zootopia a destination you absolutely must visit.