Disney takes a hint from the prophecy of Isaiah 11:6-8 with “Zootopia,” imagining a world in which all varieties of mammals live together, to use Coca Cola’s old catchphrase, “in perfect harmony.” Well, not quite: the stronger animals obviously retain feelings of superiority over weaker ones, and there’s always a sneaking suspicion that all aren’t equally trustworthy. By and large, however, lions and sheep, rabbits and foxes, rats and cats are supposed to get along—at least in theory, if not always in practice.
It’s an amusing conceit that the studio treats with a degree of adroitness that’s nearly worthy of Pixar. The result, however, is less toddler-friendly than the usual Disney fare. Older kids and adults, however, will find this a clever piece of family entertainment that wittily uses whodunit convention to deliver messages about tolerance, self-confidence and friendship in eye-catching fashion.
The heroine is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from the Bunnyburrow district who even as a child stood up against bullies and has always dreamed of being a cop despite the misgivings of her carrot-farming parents (Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt). Accepted into the academy of the capital city Zootopia as part of an inclusiveness program started by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), an imperious lion, she uses smarts to get through the rigorous training regimen and winds up a rookie in the squad of skeptical police chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a tough guy cape buffalo who’s used to stronger, bigger officers and sends her on meter-maid patrol. It’s while she’s handing out a record number of tickets that she encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con-man fox whose scams with a diminutive confederate (Tom Lister, Jr.) infuriate her but offer no grounds for an arrest.
Irritated that her skills are being underestimated, she makes a deal with Bogo to prove her worth: she’ll resign from the force if she fails to solve the department’s most pressing case—the disappearance of a slew of missing mammals, most recently a sedate, family-man otter whose wife (Octavia Spencer) begs for help—within two days. The only clue she finds in the skimpy file provided by one of her few department friends, cheetah receptionist Clawhammer (Nate Torrence), takes her to Nick, who must have been one of the last citizens to see the otter before he vanished. Once again, she uses her brain to blackmail the fox into helping her, and as the pair bicker their way to success in their search (which puts them into myriad dangers and leads eventually to the unmasking of the unexpected mastermind behind the disappearances), they become buddies despite all the predator-and-prey obstacles that lie between them.
Hopps and Wilde make an engaging pair in the tradition of frenemy couples from 1940s film noir, but they’re also surrounded by an array of winning secondary characters—Bogo and Clawhammer for a start, but also others like Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate), Lionheart’s put-upon sheep deputy; Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarsh), an arctic shrew who’s a Godfather-like crime lord surrounded by polar bear bodyguards, as well as his daughter Fru Fru (Leah Latham); Yax (Tommy Chong), a hippie-like yak who runs a nudist club; Gazelle (Shakira), a pop diva who’s also a rights activist; and Flash (Raymond S. Persi), one of the three-toed sloths who run the slower-than-molasses DMV in a sequence that every driver will recognize. The final reel goes into action-movie mode as, despite a setback that threatens their trust in one another, the heroic team follow the clues leading to the instigator of a plot that involves making random members of the community “go savage” in an effort to undermine the inter-species amity that Zootopia represents.
In addition to being a darned good yarn crammed with amusing characters and teaching uplifting ideals, the picture looks great—especially in the IMAX 3D format that’s one of the viewing options. The character animation is inventive and the backgrounds eye-popping, while on the aural side the picture benefits not only from the sterling vocal work by Goodwin, Bateman and all their unseen colleagues, but from Michael Giacchino’s boisterous score, which incorporates a few nods to the classic work of other film composers at appropriate points—something that movie music buffs will certainly appreciate.
While “Zootopia” might not be as accessible to young viewers as most of Disney’s earlier animated fare has been—they’re hardly in a position to appreciate a homage to film noir—they’ll certainly embrace its energy, and profit from its call to follow your dream, be all you can be, and get along with those unlike yourself. Adults who do get all the allusions will enjoy it all the more.