From the company that brought you the utopian simplicity of “It’s a Small World” comes a place where mammals of all shapes, sizes and dietary preferences not only live in harmony, but also are encouraged to be whatever they want — a revisionist animal kingdom in which lions and lambs lay down the mayoral law together, and a cuddly-wuddly bunny can grow up to become the city’s top cop. Welcome to “Zootopia,” where differences of race and species serve no obstacle to either acceptance or achievement. It is, in short, a city that only the Mouse House could imagine, and one that lends itself surprisingly well to a classic L.A.-style detective story, a la “The Big Lebowski” or “Inherent Vice,” yielding an adult-friendly whodunit with a chipper “you can do it!” message for the cubs.
Opening in several European countries weeks ahead of its March 4 domestic release, “Zootopia” is full of motormouthed characters and American culture in-jokes — no surprise, considering it was directed by Byron Howard, whose girl-power “Tangled” kicked off the recent Disney revival, and “The Simpsons” vet Rich Moore, who previously helmed “Wreck-It Ralph.” But that should pose little obstacle to its worldwide appeal, boosted by some of the most huggable Disney characters since “Lilo & Stitch.”
While her 225 bunny brothers and sisters are content to stay on the farm, aspirational rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) shows an early aptitude for conflict management, stepping in when a schoolyard bully hassles her classmates. Not so surprisingly, the offender happens to be a fox, though Judy doesn’t give in to such species typing, insisting that jerks come in all shapes and sizes. So, too, do heroes, and despite the limitations of her tiny scale, Judy enlists in the Zootopia police academy, struggling at first before outwitting her larger rivals.
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Graduating at the top of her class, Judy packs her bags for a job in the big city — which is like a cross between one of those shiny 21st-century Dubai complexes featuring indoor skiing and surfing, and a new Disney theme-park adjunct, complete with climate-specific subdivisions like Tundratown and Sahara Square. “There’s far too much to take in here,” as the opening scene of “The Lion King” promises (a movie whose stunning African savannah was downright simplistic compared with the world “Zootopia” has to establish), and Howard and Moore struggle to make their introduction anywhere near as impressive, despite leaning heavily on an unremarkable “I want” song called “Try Everything,” performed by Gazelle (Shakira), the veld’s sveltest pop idol (well-meaning sample lyric: “I wanna try even though I could fail”).
Doing justice to an elaborate new environment poses a familiar problem, slightly improved from last year’s “Tomorrowland,” in the sense that Judy (who probably should have grown up in town, like everyone else in Zootopia) takes a long train ride into the city, ogling the various districts as she passes. It’s a sequence worth studying a dozen times down the road just to catch all the tiny details, from the hippo-drying stations to the plastic hamster tubes, although it’s an awkward way to acquaint ourselves with the city.
In theory, Zootopia’s residents have evolved past distinctions of predator and prey, which might explain the small matter of cartoon biology: Whether tiny mice or hulking rhinoceroses, all animals have front-facing eyes, upright postures and opposable thumbs — a throwback to the delightful character design featured in Disney’s “Robin Hood” (1973), which reimagined a human world populated entirely by animals, integrating characteristics of each species into the ways different creatures move.
In progressive-minded Zootopia, a moose can co-anchor the evening news with a snow leopard without it turning into an episode of “When Animals Attack!” That said, even the most basic social interactions remain tense, as the city’s caste system matches animals to the roles that suit them best (the DMV is all-too-accurately staffed by slow-moving sloths, for example), while still adhering closely to the hierarchy of the food chain (with a few amusing exceptions, including a cameo by “Pinky and the Brain” actor Maurice LaMarche as a Don Corleone-like arctic shrew).
As far as cops are concerned, it’s the big fellas — rhinos, tigers and Cape buffalo like Capt. Bogo (Idris Elba) — who are responsible for maintaining law and order. Judy may be the first to benefit from the new mammal-inclusion initiative devised by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), but Bogo isn’t ready to trust her with a real investigation, placing the rookie on parking-meter duty while he assigns everyone else key roles in a major missing-persons case. If Bogo’s behavior smacks of species-ism, that’s no accident: The “Zootopia” screenplay (on which the directors share credit with Phil Johnston and co-helmer Jared Bush) actually turns real-world racial sensitivity issues into something of a talking point — as when Judy notes that a bunny can call another bunny “cute,” but it’s not OK when another animal does it.
While raising the subject should help encourage kids to look past surface differences in one another, it’s a bit misleading, since the movie is less about race than gender, dredging up equality issues that might have been fresher in the days of “9 to 5” and “Working Girl”: Judy is treated differently because she’s a woman, bonding most easily with Bellwether (baby-voiced comedienne Jenny Slate), the woolly assistant mayor who serves as Lionheart’s glorified secretary, and Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the police force’s effeminate cheetah receptionist.
What, then, do we make of the tenuous alliance between Judy and trickster fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), which — despite the obvious design similiarities — features none of the bloodthirsty tension shown between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in Disney’s half-forgotten/suppressed “Song of the South”? “Zootopia’s” relatively P.C. sensibility serves as a partial corrective to that shameful 1946 toon, offering a classic screwball-comedy relationship in which the natural rivals match wits, while she carries the added protection of a spray-based fox repellent. Getting no support from her police comrades, Judy enlists Nick in an investigation that leads her down the metaphorical rabbit hole and into the seedier side of “Zootopia,” from the Mystic Spring Oasis (a clothing-optional resort where animals frolic au naturel) to an ominous research facility housing predators that have “gone savage.”
The deeper they go, the more “Zootopia” comes to resemble such vintage noirs as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” from its increasingly shadowy look to Michael Giacchino’s jazzy lounge-music score. Disney has been down this road before with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” although this time, there’s not a single human character to be found, while the adult-skewing jokes (mostly references to other movies) aren’t nearly so inappropriate for kids. Genre-wise, the film couldn’t be farther from the terrain of “Frozen” and other Disney princess movies, though it plays directly to the studio’s strengths, behind the scenes (we may not see every corner of Zootopia, but we know it’s been mapped out and conceptualized) and on screen, where the endearingly designed ensemble gives the animators plenty to work with.
Judy Hopps’ bright-eyed, foot-thumping energy and Nick Wilde’s cool, half-lidded reluctance offer a perfect study in contrasts, crossing what both actors gave in the recording booth with characteristics of the two species in question. In Goodwin’s case, the actress’s guileless optimism comes through loud and clear, telegraphed through her two long bunny ears, which fold back in fear and shame, but otherwise stand expectantly tall in the face of each new challenge. As her wily fox foil, Nick models a fast-changing map of Bateman’s smirks and eye rolls, his slouchy posture a deceptive cover for his slippery potential.
While it doesn’t have quite the same breakout potential as the Mouse House’s past few hits, “Zootopia” has shrewdly established both an environment that could be further explored from countless other angles (in a spinoff TV series, perhaps) and an odd-couple chemistry between Nick and Judy that carries on even after Gazelle returns for her obligatory grand finale.