Who are animated feature films for these days? Traditionally seen as children’s entertainment, the higher quality entries in this genre have hit a sweet spot with enough sophisticated jokes for parents to enjoy, coupled with cutesy animation to delight children. Disney’s latest film, “Zootopia” achieves this, though it seems to skew more adult in its content, if not its characters. Somehow, Disney has managed to pull off a hard-boiled police procedural thriller about political corruption starring an adorable, large-eyed bunny. As strange as this combination might seem, it works. Who knew bunnies could make such intrepid rookie cops?
Within the world of “Zootopia,” Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) knows this to be true all along. She’s a plucky bunny from a humble carrot-farming family, who sets her sights on life in the big city of Zootopia, making the world a better place as a police officer. In Zootopia, the predators and prey live together in peaceful harmony — civilized, clothes-wearing city-dwellers.
Judy struggles with the typical problems of any recent graduate in a new city — dumpy apartment, entry-level job, disapproving boss (Idris Elba), over-protective parents. But Judy is a “try-er,” as her mom says. A bright-eyed overachiever, she strives to leave her mark on the police department and do the right thing.
So Judy throws herself headlong into an investigation of missing mammals, specifically one Emmet Otterton, with the aid of wise-cracking fox Nick (Jason Bateman). Their search leads them through the seedy underbelly of Zootopia, tangling with the diminutive mole Mr. Big — a “Godfather”-esque mob boss surrounded by polar bear thugs. This leads them to questioning his jaguar limo driver, discovering a secret prison for predators gone savage, and uncovering a grow-house/drug operation run by rams (including two named Walter and Jesse — the little ones probably won’t pick up on that “Breaking Bad” reference).
All the dark, crime-themed material is balanced out with a heavy dose of cute furry friends, and the incongruous pairings are often quite funny (especially a tiny bat-eared fox with a voice much larger than his stature). And as the heart of the story, Judy’s boundless enthusiasm and can-do attitude keep the story properly on message.
As in most Disney movies, the subtext never remains below the surface, spelled out in cheery truisms and lessons. One of the strongest messages is about discrimination and not judging someone by a stereotype like “sly fox” or “dumb bunny.” The “predator” fear could also easily be extrapolated to real world discrimination.
There’s some heavy-duty psychological exploration into the ways childhood bullying can affect an individual. While the ramifications of youthful trauma are a Disney staple, there’s also a perhaps unintended connection to current events with the story of “good cops” doing the right thing to help fix a “broken” world — a political undercurrent that one wouldn’t necessarily expect.
But for all the substantial themes throughout “Zootopia,” the film maintains a lighthearted and entertaining tone. Bateman is a standout voice performer as the sly-talking hustler Nick, running a popsicle scam, who is eventually softened by the earnest goodwill of Judy. The animation is top notch too, combining cute and cartoonish character design with lifelike realism. Ultimately, all audiences can find something to enjoy in “Zootopia,” though adults may find more to sink their teeth into, which is always refreshing.