The world of children’s lit is already so jam-packed with talking foxes and bunny rabbits providing teachable moments that it’s unimaginable we’d need any more of them. How many animal-kingdom civics lessons can a kid—let alone an adult—process before tuning out for good? The weird surprise of Disney’s Zootopia is that it gives the canon a jolt of life. Even if the movie’s overarching message to humans is an obvious one—people of all races need to learn to live in harmony—there are enough under-the-radar subtleties, rendered with a refreshing lack of smart-aleckiness, to make Zootopia feel current and fresh. It’s a modest, unassuming entertainment that’s motored by a sly sensibility.
Ginnifer Goodwin provides the voice of Judy Hopps, a relentlessly perky little rabbit whose ambition is to be a cop. To those unschooled in the Zootopia universe, that’s not as attainable a goal as it may sound: The story is set in an animal world where predator and prey have learned to live peacefully. No one eats, or even chases or bothers, anyone else. Even though you’d think this would be a world where anything is possible, and where anyone can be anything, there has never before been a policebunny. Still, Judy works hard and lands a spot on the police force—but Police Chief Bogo, a majestic water buffalo with a rolling, operatic voice (it belongs to Idris Elba), doubts her capabilities and assigns her to meter-maid duty. Though Judy is understandably miffed, she becomes the best meterbunny she can be. While hopping about issuing tickets, she makes the acquaintance of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox in a jaunty short-sleeve shirt that shows off his pointy little reynard elbows.
Nick is a hustler, a con-fox, and he takes great pleasure in duping the rookie Judy. But she’s bright enough to turn the tables on him, eventually forcing him to help her find a missing otter gentleman whose wife, Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer), is frantic with worry. It turns out that monsieur otter’s disappearance is connected with a nefarious city-government plot to instill fear in Zootopia’s citizens by making predators aggressive and dangerous once again.
In more straightforward lingo: Zootopia is actually a movie about crooked, bigoted authority figures who recognize that the best way to stay in power is to make sure “white” animals live in constant fear of “black” ones. And if that’s not a sock-in-the jaw metaphor for contemporary life in most major American cities, what is? For a cute story about talking animals, Zootopia—directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, with Jared Bush as codirector—is surprisingly pointed. Better yet, it doesn’t get mired in its lesson, moving along stealthily on little forest-critter feet. It’s also dotted with delightful touches: At the Zootopia Department of Motor Vehicles, the wait time is forever because the place is staffed by actual sloths—they stamp documents and snap photos with the alacrity of 90-year-old tai chi practitioners. Watching them can make you a little crazy, at least until you start laughing. And if that’s not gritty realism in cartoon form, I don’t know what is.