'Zootopia' imagines an animal kingdom marred by prejudice

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Disney

In “Zootopia,” Disney brings the animal kingdom into the 21st century, trading the jungles for a forest of skyscrapers. Animals as big as lumbering elephants and as tiny as scurrying shrews occupy the titular city, wearing clothes, walking the same streets and regularly using smartphones and cars. Zootopia’s locales and technology are conceived with meticulous attention to detail and function, and one often gets the sense that animal engineers actually built it. It is an inviting, seemingly perfect world that feels lived-in.

However, the relationships between predator and prey in Zootopia are hardly utopian. Though they coexist, the metropolis’ many carnivores and herbivores have a history of enmity that belies their modern-day interactions. Lions and sheep still aren’t the best of friends, and neither are rabbits and foxes. 

Rookie rabbit cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) was bullied by a fox classmate in her childhood and has received multiple warnings about the wily critters from her parents. Unlike other rabbits, though, she refuses to stereotype and remains open-minded as she sets off for Zootopia.

To her dismay, Judy’s co-workers don’t share her idealism. On her first day at the police department, Captain Bogo (Idris Elba), an imposing cape buffalo, assigns the diminutive Judy to traffic duty while the rhinos, bears and tigers go off in search of missing animals.

Judy eventually encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly and sardonic fox who will do anything to make a quick buck. She detests him, while he finds her naïve, if somewhat amusing. Nonetheless, Judy recognizes Nick’s intelligence and enlists his help after she takes on a missing otter case. As they investigate further, they stumble upon a conspiracy which could damage the unity of predator and prey in Zootopia for good.

The detective story has enough twists and turns to keep young and old audiences intrigued, drawing comparisons to other cop and crime films with its rich cast of characters (one shrew is reminiscent of Don Corleone). The stakes are high in this picture, but screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston balance out the film’s weightier aspects with a multitude of clever jokes and pop-culture references. As the story progresses, it is revealed the DMV is, appropriately, run by sloths, and that wolves fear their inability to control their howls. 

There is inherent irony in Judy and Nick becoming allies because of their natural antagonism. Their budding friendship serves as the heart of the film, and their shared moments range from biting and witty to tender and loving.

Goodwin imbues Judy with an enormous positivity, and the animators have given her character cute rabbit tics, like a twitching nose and restless feet, that make her even more lovable. Bateman’s character, Nick, emotes sleazy cynicism, which contrasts Goodwin’s endearing goodness, but he also offers insight into the fox’s fundamental sadness — Nick resigns himself to the life of hustling that all the other animals assume he inhabits.

Prejudice mars the world of Zootopia. The speciesism in the film is racism in a fantasy context, and gender issues also arise when Judy encounters opposition from her peers who want to see her fail. Fear-mongering turns species against one another, and prey mistreat predators, labeling them as “savages,” because of their fierce appearances. Even Judy succumbs to her social conditioning — how can we expect her to shake her fear of foxes when everyone else considers them scum?

Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore aren’t shy about the message they want to deliver, so kids will easily pick up on the “anyone can be anything” lesson. For adults looking for nuance, “Zootopia” sustains its theme in subtler ways threaded throughout the story, and it uses our own preconceived notions of certain animals to subvert expectations.

Heartwarming, funny and, above all else, relevant, “Zootopia” doesn’t make a fresh point about equality and acceptance, but it does a fantastic job conveying it.

“Zootopia”

  • Running Time: 108 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Score: 4.5/5 stars