The wild and furry landscape of Zootopia, Disney’s new self-contained world of talking animals, is a remarkable place. In this land, mammals have evolved beyond their traditional predator/prey relationship to form a fully functioning society. Their capital city, Zootropolis, is an intricate network of a dozen ecosystems, from a rainforest to a frozen tundra, and residents of all sizes and species are integrated into daily life. This, as our intrepid bunny hero Officer Judy Hopps constantly asserts, is a place “where anyone can be anything.”
And Zootopia is a movie that can be anything, whether that’s a succession of adorable rabbit jokes, a buddy-cop (bunny-cop?) flick for the tots, or—this is the big surprise—a remarkably prescient allegory of our time that comments on prejudice, urbanism, tokenism, politics and the role of the police in today’s society. It’s got the cuteness and childlike creativity you expect from Disney, while the story has some real bite for the adults. And if you needed more convincing, Shakira voices a Shakira-like pop star named “Gazelle,” who is a gazelle, and whose backup dancers are shirtless tigers.
Even with three directors and more “screenplay” and “story” credits than you can shake a carrot at, the film doesn’t feel cobbled together from spare parts. Instead, it tells a clear and engaging narrative about Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), an idealistic but naive newcomer to Zootropolis who fulfills a lifelong dream to become the first “bunny officer” on the police force. Leaving behind her mom, dad and 275 brothers and sisters in Bunny Borough, Hopps arrives in town with open arms, but receives only big-city dream busting: a bullheaded police chief (Idris Elba, as an actual bull) who has her write parking tickets all day; unconscious bigotry from co-workers who demean her as “cute”; and the run-around from a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), whose schemes remain one step ahead of the law.
But Hopps stamps her feet and declares, “I’m not just a token bunny,” and suddenly we see the true promise of Zootopia. It may be approximately the 321st Disney movie about talking animals, but the film is exhilaratingly fresh: an irreverent product of our current era and an unmistakable satire of race relations. Dig the way Hopps condescends to her new fox friend by calling him “articulate,” or the speculation that the mayor of Zootropolis (a lion voiced, naturally, by J.K. Simmons) hired a woolly assistant because he “needed the sheep vote.” Over the course of investigating a missing otter, Hopps and Wilde—at first a reluctant partner, but later revealing a softer side—uncover a vast government conspiracy to pit predator against prey once more, by using the tried-and-true weapon of prejudice. Years of harmony between rival species are suddenly under threat, thanks to rushed assumptions about “biology.”
This makes the film sound about as heavy as an elephant-sized popsicle, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Zootopia nimbly turns its subject matter into a great deal of fun, with riffs about animal “nudists” and a goofy Godfather parody featuring a Marlon Brando shrew. The colors are bright, the animation is crisp and the design elements of Zootropolis itself are clever and future-perfect, everything we wanted from that other recent big-budget attempted Disney utopia, Tomorrowland.
It wasn’t until late in Zootopia‘s development that Disney elected to make Hopps the focus of the story over Wilde, but it was a wise decision: her spunky farm-girl personality is a throughline we readily identify with, as with Rey in the new Star Wars. Hopefully the merchandising team will make some toys featuring their heroine this time around. And with any luck, soon Hopps can get busy investigating the other great mysteries of Zootropolis, such as what happened to all the non-mammalians, and what the heck do predators eat if not their natural prey?
If Zootopia becomes fortunate enough to fall into Frozen-style heavy rotation for kids of a certain age, its messages of rejecting prejudice and embracing the complicated nature of multiculturalism could do some good for the world. Just be prepared for the invasion of a new “Let it Go”-style earworm, courtesy of Shak— er, Gazelle.