Movie Review: ‘Zootopia’ clever, adorable family-friendly fun
Humans fancy themselves superior to animals, but the thickly layered “Zootopia” begs to differ. Unlike us, the residents of this anthropomorphic metropolis live largely without animus and think themselves free of bigotry. It’s as if our four-legged friends decided to heed Rodney King’s call for everyone to get along, making it possible for lambs to lie down with lions, foxes to be vegetarians and female bunnies to dream of burrowing through grass ceilings.
Most importantly, Zootopia is a community where you’re not so much judged by the color of your fur, but by the content of your character. And characters are what “Zootopia” is all about, as directors Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-it Ralph”) transport us to a human-free world of peace, love and understanding. Or, at least they do to start.
In the years since the upper 10 percent, aka the predators, agreed to no longer feed on the lower 90 percent, aka the prey, Zootopia has become a docile, socialistic society where residents (no doubt feeling the Bern) work and live for the common good. But we soon learn there’s a greedy, Tea Party-like element working to undermine the peace and tranquility by using fear tactics to tap latent prejudices. What are progressive-thinking mammals to do?
As you might have gathered, “Zootopia” is an animation dealing in left-leaning metaphors so current it’s like writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston (“Wreck-it Ralph”) penned the script last week, not several years ago, as is the case. With frothy humor as their weapon, the pair take stinging shots at the evils of racism and sexism by pairing a rookie-cop bunny with a flimflamming fox to sniff out the perpetrators who want to destroy Zootopia’s harmonic way of life.
The results are both clever and priceless, as the story adds layer upon layer of subtext that range from the obvious themes of champing equality to the subtle satirization of how we’re quick to stereotype others. The movie even finds time to goof on other Disney toons, such as “Frozen,” which is slyly referenced when our intrepid bunny, Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin), is told to “let it go” by her behemoth water buffalo superior, Chief Bogo (the great Idris Elba), after telling him it has always been her dream to be a police officer.
There are dozens of similar quips you might miss if you’re not paying full attention (So plan on seeing it at least twice). Same for the sight gags lurking amid the gorgeous and inventive 3-D animation, which envisions Zootopia as a city – not unlike New York and Boston – composed of richly detailed ethnic neighborhoods like frigid Tundraland, where the polar bears hang, or Little Rodentia, a Matchbox-sized enclave of gerbils, hamsters and mice.
It’s the country, though, where we first meet the adorably vivacious Judy. It’s noted from the start that her overly concerned rabbit parents, Bonnie (Bonnie Hunt) and Stu (Don Lake), have 225 other children, but they clearly have a soft spot for Judy, who they’d prefer stay safe at home on the carrot farm instead of pursuing her policewoman dream in the slightly more dangerous Zootopia.
Judy’s refusal to be dissuaded should serve as a terrific inspiration for little girls to dream big and aspire high. But the larger message “Zootopia” is sending is one of tolerance and understanding, something Judy learns the hard way through her interspecies relationship with Jason Bateman’s marginalized fox, Nick Wilde. At one time, Nick also dreamed big, but the bullying and name calling (sadly, some forms of bigotry still exist) he endured as a kid robbed him of his confidence and self-dignity. So he turned to a life of crime – until Judy comes along.
Like us, Nick is enchanted by Judy’s unbridled enthusiasm and upbeat spirit, which is only deterred if you dare call her “cute,” or say she can’t do something. Still, he’s going to need some prodding if he’s going to help her prove herself to Chief Bogo by solving the unsolvable “case of the missing predators.” Their ensuing investigation allows the filmmakers’ imaginations to run wild, employing a “Chinatown” riff that takes our overmatched heroes to Zootopia’s most colorful boroughs, where they encounter such oddballs as nudist yoga enthusiasts working out at a club run by a full-fledged burnout (perfectly voiced by Tommy Chong); and a Don Corleone-like rodent (Maurice Lamarche) who isn’t particularly happy being asked favors on this his daughter’s wedding day.
But the best bit involves a sloth (who else?) working the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yes, this is going to take a while. A shout out also goes to Milton native Jenny Slate, who is terrific as a sheep one heartbeat (or impeachment) away from replacing her grumpy lion boss, the Mayor (J.K. Simmons), if the missing predator case isn’t solved soon.
In many ways, “Zootopia” is like 2014’s “LEGO Movie” in that it comes as such an unexpected treat at a time of year when you don’t get a lot of quality blockbusters. But, quality is what “Zootopia” exudes from every cell. Call it animal magnetism.
Featuring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate and Bonnie Hunt.
(PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.)