Movie Review: Zootopia

Zootopia is perhaps the best animated film Disney has ever made. It’s gorgeous to look at, with a great voice cast, a solid story, a lot of laughs, and a great message. It also the perfect way to capitalize on the crushes that probably millions of now-parents had on certain other cartoon foxes when we were kids. I loved it so much.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are perfectly cast in the lead roles. Judy Hopps is a great protagonist—smart, creative, tough, kind, and flawed in ways far more complex than is typical of the heroes in most children’s movies. Bateman’s Nick Wilde is the first time in years that I’ve liked him in anything; he’s a perfectly lovable rogue, with enough intelligence and depth to keep him from being a stock sidekick for Goodwin’s Judy. The friendship between the two characters grows in a way that feels real and honest, and their eventual breakup and ultimate reconciliation feel earned.

The supporting cast of characters is wonderful, with Idris Elba as Judy’s gruff superior, the Cape buffalo Bogo, Nate Torrence as Clawhauser the cheetah, J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Jenny Slate as Assistant Mayor Bellwether, and Shakira as pop star Gazelle. Tommy Chong plays a nudist Yak, Alan Tudyk is a criminal weasel, Octavia Spencer plays the wife of one of the movie’s missing mammals, and Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake are Judy’s loving, if imperfectly supportive, parents. While most of these characters do fall into standard tropes for this sort of story, the tropes utilized are well-chosen and nicely put together in a way that avoids being cliché. The buddy cop mystery plot isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a particularly excellent story of its type, and the cast is more than up for the challenge of bringing it to life.

The greatest strength of Zootopia, though, is the way it handles its largest theme—how racism works. With a maturity and grace not usually seen in adult films, much less in a movie for kids, Zootopia manages to break down systems of oppression in a way that even a child can understand. Certainly it’s not uncommon for writers of all kinds to use fantasy worlds and fantasy races/species as stand-ins for real world people in allegorical examinations of race issues, but what is done here is something pretty special. Zootopia goes a step further and looks at the ways in which even people who are marginalized in some ways can be privileged in other ways. And more—Zootopia doesn’t stick to any cutesy situations; it’s a straight up police state situation, and protagonist Judy is at the center of the events that bring it about. To be sure, she’s also part of the solution, but only after taking a long hard look at her own actions and committing herself to being and doing better.

It’s a timely, poignant film that doesn’t have any pat answers to the contemporary problems it deals with. Instead, Zootopia’s central message is summed up in its only original song, “Try Everything,” a paean to perseverance. The world may not be perfect, and you may not always be right, but all you can do is keep trying—like Judy does—to be and do better and work to make the world a kinder place. It’s a surprisingly mature and complex message to find in a children’s movie, and it makes Zootopia something really unique and special.

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