In a world of talking mammals where humans do not exist, there is a rabbit called Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who dreams of being a police officer in the city of Zootopia. There has never been a rabbit cop before, but Hopps is determined. She eventually becomes the first rabbit to make it through the police academy, but she discovers that her fellow officers do not take her seriously. She is sneered at for her small stature and the fact that she isn’t a predator. Years ago, the creatures of this world decided that predators and prey had to make peace in order for society to thrive, however there are still many animals who don’t accept this new world order.
Her boss Bogo, a giant buffalo, won’t give Judy an opportunity to show what she is capable of until one day she elbows her way into a missing persons case. She also crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox and a con artist. Through a complex series of events, the fox and the rabbit form a reluctant team and go on the hunt to discover what is happening to the missing animals.
The conception of Disney’s ZOOTOPIA is in part inspired by the studio’s 1973 version of ROBIN HOOD. That was also a world entirely peopled by animals. Co-director Byron Howard took this concept to Disney’s animation supremo, John Lasseter who loved the idea. Nick Wilde’s design is clearly inspired by the Robin Hood fox. At this point, Wilde was the central character in the narrative, but as the development process wore on, it became clear that Judy Hopps, the rookie cop from the sticks, was going to be the best way to tell the story.
Prejudice and diversity are the currents running near the surface of ZOOTOPIA. Numerous gags deal with the differences in size, speed and powers of the the animals. The message does not overwhelm the story-telling. Directors Howard (TANGLED) and Rich Moore (WRECK-IT RALPH) are smart enough to lead with the action and comedy and the result is a sophisticated entertainment aimed at family audiences. The main story has the familiar structure of a police procedural, but there is enough colour and movement to keep the kids engaged. This was certainly the case at the screening I attended.
The story also tugs at the threads of popular culture. It has elements that remind one of CHINATOWN (1974) or WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). Judy Hopps is an echo of Clarice Starling from 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (rest assured parents, none of these animated carnivores devours a victim with a side of fava beans). Hopps and Wilde’s relationship is (in a G-rated way) patterned after material like television’s Castle. However, there isn’t that wall-to-wall pop culture referencing that sometimes mars big studio animated features. ZOOTOPIA is substantially its own thing; it’s not a sequel, not a reboot, nor is it based on an existing comic or novel.
The animation and voice performances are top shelf. Goodwin and Bateman are excellent as the leads. They actually have chemistry. Which is a little weird to see on screen and to write in a film review. I wasn’t in love with the character design and animation as I was with Disney’s BIG HERO 6, but that’s me nit-picking. This production has all the polish and talent that big studio bucks can buy, right down to the theme song sung by Shakira and written by Sia and Stargate.