Ads for Disney’s latest animated feature Zootopia focus on a rookie bunny cop trying to solve her first case. While that is the basic plot, Zootopia uses it as a springboard to address surprising issues.
Zootopia is set in a world of anthropomorphic animals in which predators and prey peacefully coexist. This seemingly perfect utopia is called into question when several animals go missing.
The protagonist is Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin), the first rabbit police officer in Zootopia. After being made a glorified meter maid, Judy strikes a deal with the police chief (Idris Elba) who wants to get rid of her. She has 48 hours to find a missing otter; if she fails, she will resign.
Judy’s only lead is Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly con artist fox. This sets up a standard buddy cop scenario in which the pair initially can’t stand each other, but inevitably turn out to be a great team.
On one level — the one in which young children will enjoy the film — Zootopia is bright, colourful, fast-paced and funny. The character and location designs are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.
Goodwin, providing Judy with an energetic, optimistic pluck, and Bateman, supplying his trademark dry sarcasm, have great comedic chemistry. Their relationship develops in a way that is sincere and heartfelt.
There is also fine supporting work by Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt as Judy’s parents; J.K. Simmons as the mayor, Jenny Slate as the mayor’s assistant; Maurice LaMarche as the crime boss Mr. Big; Tommy Chong as a hippie yak who works at a nudist colony; Alan Tudyk as a weasel; and Nate Torrence as tiger cop with a love for doughnuts.
The humour finds a balance between silly and witty that will play well to both young and old. A scene at a DMV staffed by sloths optimises this.
If Zootopia stayed on this first level it would be a fun family entertainment but, by exploring a deeper level, it becomes something richer and more valuable.
Throughout the film, Judy is seen as little more than a cute bunny and is not taken seriously. The way the screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston brings up this passive form of sexism isn’t heavy-handed or preachy. It simply exists for Judy as something she must face.
Similarly, Nick became a hustler because everyone stereotyped him as untrustworthy because he is a fox. In a flashback, Nick is being bullied and shouts “What did I do wrong?” He didn’t do anything wrong, except be born a fox. This is a powerful allegory for racism, especially coming from a film being marketed as a run-of-the-mill kids film.
As Judy digs deeper into her investigation, she uncorks underlying prejudices and fears of predators. Because of a few bad predators, the prey animals begin to label all predators as potentially violent and dangerous.
Despite these heavy themes, Zootopia never becomes weighed down by them. Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Bush find a delicate touch that keeps the material just light enough while not trivialising these tough issues.
Zootopia is addressing important topics that are worthy of discussion by children and adults alike. That you’ll laugh a lot is an added bonus. Humour has always had a way of making it easier to see a hard truth. Kudos to Disney for taking a chance in telling such a story.