Zootopia is a bouncy, candy-colored animation, not an overt political allegory, yet it's an apt movie for this primary season. When a villain sneers, "Fear always works," the film offers a succinct illustration of how scapegoating a feared minority makes a power grab possible.
This dark insight emerges from a cute Disney story about talking animals who have all learned — sort of — to get along. A deft expository prologue establishes that, in this world devoid of Homo sapiens, mammals have become civilized (i.e., anthropomorphized) and put aside their ancient differences. Predators no longer eat prey, and the two groups socialize freely, particularly in the diverse urban wonderland of Zootopia, where "anyone can be anything."
That's the mantra of country cottontail Judy Hopps (voiced perkily by Ginnifer Goodwin), who sets out for Zootopia determined to be the city's first bunny officer of the law. But when she reports for duty after acing her training, she finds herself facing heavyweight beasts who dismiss her sneeringly as the product of a diversity initiative; the fuming buffalo chief (Idris Elba) puts her on meter-maid duty. Seems some genus barriers aren't so easily broken.
Up to this point, Zootopia feels like a riff on "spunky girl trying to join the boys' club" tropes. Things get more complicated when Judy meets cynical hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and realizes she needs his help to solve a missing-mammal case. He's a fox — every rabbit's least-favorite predator, and a species generally maligned for that whole "slyness" thing. As Judy grapples with her own prejudices and trades barbs with her unlikely ally, the two begin to uncover a conspiracy that threatens the city and its ideals.
Directed by Disney veterans Byron Howard and Rich Moore, Zootopia offers the same winning combination of verbal and visual dexterity that made Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie so entertaining to an all-ages audience. Like those two films, it takes place in a theme-park-like world that unfolds gradually before our eyes, so fascinatingly detailed that it sometimes steals the story's thunder.
Zootopia has "boroughs" representing different habitats, each with its distinct color palette; one delirious chase is set in a dollhouse-size rodent district where Judy is a giant. The script (by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston) and the sight gags support each other: When Nick and Judy walk into the DMV to find it staffed by sloths, we all know what's coming. (It's the comic timing, though, that really sells the scene.)
Can anyone be anything? Sometimes the script plays self-consciously on human issues — for instance, when Judy explains to a well-meaning cheetah that it's only OK for other bunnies to call a bunny "cute." At other moments, the film gets traditional laughs from the notion that animal nature will always win out over nurture — sloths are slow, wolves compulsively howl. Yet Nick and Judy form a bond that defies millennia of mistrust, and when the villainous mastermind is revealed, it's not the animal we might expect.
Pretty much every election season, someone is accused of trying to promote a "utopia" that ignores the realities of predation and power, while someone else is accused of exploiting those dark realities to establish a reign of fear. Zootopia doesn't try to resolve these age-old ideological conflicts. It's actually a stronger film for not allowing us to draw easy one-to-one correspondences between mammal pecking orders and human ones. But the film does insistently, wittily suggest that the best antidote to fearmongering is to approach individuals as individuals rather than as "sly foxes" or "dumb bunnies." Even a sloth can have a need for speed.