I scoffed at the TV spots that quoted reviewers who called it “the best Disney movie of the last twenty years.” (I’ll fight you about Wreck-It Ralph.) I thought surely it was a fine movie, but nothing groundbreaking. Well, I stand corrected. It’s not a movie that I would call one of my special favorite Disney movies, but it’s damn good and well worth the hype.
I think the trailers do a real disservice by not really giving away too much about the plot of the movie and focusing more on the comedic elements. This film is really quite plotty and intricate – it seems like a typical inspirational Disney movie about an average person with big dreams, and then turns into a layered, complex commentary about prejudice and preconceptions, as well as a really good buddy cop story. We open on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who, despite her size and humble background, is determined to become the first bunny cop in Zootopia. She achieves that dream, only to be stuck as a meter maid and practically laughed out of the bullpen by all her fellow cops. Until, that is, she takes on one of the many ongoing missing mammals cases with a 48-hour deadline, and with the help of con man Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) uncovers a diabolical plot to upend the delicate social systems of Zootopia.
The funny thing is, this isn’t really a movie for kids. Once you get past the talking, walking animals thing, there are an awful lot of jokes and references that are going to go straight over their heads, and some of the social commentary is going to be completely lost on them. For instance, there’s a whole conversation Judy has with the station receptionist, Benjamin Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), about how “one bunny can call another bunny ‘cute,’ but when another animal does it, it’s kind of…” Racist, is perhaps the implication. Species-ist? Unless a child is familiar with the social implications of the n-word in black communities as opposed to non-black communities, only the adults will get that reference. Another scene involves Nick saying something like “if the world was only ever gonna see a sly fox, I didn’t see the point in trying to be anything better.” A rabbit mother sits with her child on the train and a tiger comes to sit next to them, and the mother pulls the child close to her and looks nervously at the tiger. There are no direct correlations between one group and a species of animals, but there are a lot of little references to prejudices and microaggressions that minority groups constantly experience. Not to mention it’s pretty intense; there are some chase sequences that would have traumatized me as a kid, and a heartbreaking scene where Nick explains how he learned to be so emotionally reserved (it’s paralleled nicely with a scene in the beginning from Judy’s childhood, where she was also bullied). This isn’t one of those animated movies that anyone over the age of ten would hate – actually, I think only older kids are going to be able to fully appreciate it, though it’s got important messages for all ages.
That being said, most adults are probably going to be able to guess at least parts of the answer to the mystery pretty quick. I definitely called what was making the animals go savage once the concept was introduced, and my friend called the surprise villain of the film. But there’s plenty here even for adults who figure out the plot: lots of clever references and allusions (I was the only one who laughed at the Breaking Bad reference both times I saw it), dialogue basically stolen from The Godfather, and the DMV sloth sequence that people still seem to find uproariously funny even though it’s been in every trailer for months. Plus, Judy is so endearing you can’t help but be charmed, and Nick is the perfect mix of snarky asshole with secretly decent dude. Neither are perfect, both make mistakes, and the movie allows them to grow and to form a rapport with each other.
I do still have some questions about how the society works – what do the predators eat, if not prey? How does the government work, are there smaller branches for cities/environments much like our own and/or is there a single governing body? Are interspecies relationships accepted or even possible, or are they just not considered? – but there are fascinating small touches that show, for example, how water-dwelling animals like hippos dry off before getting to work, and how smaller animals live without getting squashed (there’s a great chase scene set in Little Rodentia, a miniature neighborhood in Zootopia). This is one of those animated movies that I really want the art book for, because I’m sure there’s details that I missed. And if any of the more recent ones deserve sequels, I’d put this one near the top of the list.