In Zootopia, animals do a lot of the things that animals in Disney movies usually do: They speak, to begin with; they walk upright and wear funny clothes; they exhibit attitudes that align or ironically misalign with their species' appearance and reputation; they hold jobs; they experience outsize emotion and moral doubt; they sing and dance about their emotions and resolve those moral doubts. Which is to say that, in Disney’s almost-audacious new animated feature, the animals behave less like actual humans and more like humans found in movies. What sets Zootopia apart from its dancing-bear kin is the way it uses the terms of anthropomorphism to emphasize its central questions: What does it mean to be civilized – i.e., to be human – what does it mean to be an animal, and is it possible to be both?
If that sounds heavy, never fear: Zootopia also features a lion named Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and an anthem-belting gazelle (named Gazelle) voiced by Shakira. A biblical variety and number of God’s adorably styled creatures populate this allegory of discrimination and tribalism. The bunny is our girl: Raised on a farm with her 225 siblings, Judy’s dream was to move to Zootopia, “where anyone can be anything,” and become a police officer.
Like contemporary New York or Paris, the metropolis of Zootopia is also a sort of theme park – in this case a land of different climates and topographies where all animals live in peace, if not quite together. Boroughs like “Little Rodentia” and “Tundratown” separate the mice from the polar bears; despite its claim of harmony between species, Zootopia’s animals self-segregate, something the film suggests is inevitable within even the most inclusive society. The whole shebang hinges on the apparent eradication of the prey drive in the animal kingdom’s natural predators, including Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a swaggering fox with an all-day hustle. The animals have “evolved” past the prey instinct, though apparently their other respective drives remain intact (see: Judy’s 225 siblings).
With some effort, Judy aces the police academy, only to find that she is unwelcome in a professional cohort made up of rhinos, polar bears and other beastly types led by a hardass Cape buffalo named Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). Like everyone else, Bogo believes Judy to be unfit for the job – she’s too small, too weak, too soft.
In case we miss the analogies for sexism, racism and bigotry that run somewhat rampant in Zootopia, screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jared Bush (the latter also has a directing credit, together with Byron Howard and Rich Moore) use language borrowed from debates on civil rights and diversity as well as the realm of political correctness and micro-aggressions. Judy insists she’s “not just some token bunny” and explains that only a bunny can call another bunny “cute.” Judy’s parents taught her that there is a biological basis for foxes’ bad behavior; Zootopia’s assistant mayor (Jenny Slate), an ewe, courts “the sheep vote.” At one point Judy calls Nick “articulate,” and he compliments her expert patronizing.
Nick claims that he entered a life of petty crime because the world didn’t expect any better from a “sly fox”; Judy must constantly transcend the “dumb bunny” trope. Zootopia feels most alert to its own mission when its characters – most centrally Judy “this is what a bunny looks like” Hopps – individuate while somehow staying true to their respective species. That mission gets clouded in scenes like Nick and Judy’s trip to a Zootopia DMV staffed entirely by sloths that behave … exactly like sloths. It’s an easy laugh, but one that cuts against the movie’s diligent parsing of how insidious a silly stereotype can be.
Nick and Judy’s relationship forms the heart of Zootopia’s edgy-cute exercise in consciousness raising: Stuck on the meter-maid beat but determined to prove herself, Judy catches Nick mid-hustle, then uses him to help investigate the disappearance of an otter named Emmet. Said otter is one of a dozen Zootopians – all predators – gone missing. In the course of her investigation, Judy uncovers evidence of predators suddenly “going savage” and attacking their fellow animals. Like a zombie outbreak, the savagery seems to be contagious, and the media begins force-feeding the population’s fears. Having recently shed their mutual prejudices, Nick and Judy find their partnership beginning to fray and fill with doubt.
The problem, of course, with Zootopia’s framing metaphor is that predators are predators by nature, and thank God for that. Heavy with pop allusions and references to other crime-underworld movies, including The Godfather and Chinatown, Zootopia is impressive in its visual conception and scope: At once straightforward and densely layered with wit and incident, it manages a lively clip and the odd fresh joke. But the movie’s limp resolution of the provocative questions it raises – aren’t we still animals, civilized but ultimately tribal animals, and won’t we always pose some kind of danger to one another? – had the Werner Herzog of my mind laughing loudest.