Review: Zootopia is a Gorgeous, Hilarious, and Sophisticated Exploration of Prejudice

By Christopher Ortiz · March 8, 2016

Layered in the expertly constructed script for Disney’s Zootopia is a painful, sometimes un-subtle message that will ring true for kids and adults alike. Disney has released some colorful, amusing films with dark adult themes in the past thanks to the brilliant minds of Pixar, but Zootopia is the most socially-relevant and determined of them all. This is a film that wants to send a harsh message about the reality of prejudice that plagues our world (and specifically the U.S.) without ever becoming didactic or preachy. And though some cop-out moments exist in the plot’s second and third acts, Zootopia’s message is loud, clear, and contains large payoffs in many different ways. If that sounds heavy, then fear not because Zootopia also happens to be Disney's funniest, most visually imaginitive films in years.
The film is carried by the young Judy Hopps (Once upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town rabbit who becomes Zootopia’s first ever rabbit officer, defying her parents who live lives of complacency. In a city that’s 90% prey and 10% predator (and, in theory at least, living in 100% harmony), a small bunny in a cop uniform is enough to make most citizens scoff. She’s initially assigned parking duties instead of a case concerning local disappearances of predatory animals, yet the resolve of this ambitious bunny keeps her hopping.
Despite obvious sexism-parallels, Judy uses her size, skill-sets and heart to chase bad guys and offer her services to helpless citizens despite a precinct that would rather she didn't. She is yet another strong, easy-to-root-for female protagonist from Disney, and yet even she harbors flaws and prejudices that not only make her relatable to a human audience, but also place her front-and-center to the film's core themes.
Goodwin’s performance, full of angst, magnetism and humor, ensures she never feels like the bad guy when she screws up. Rather, she’s a completely understandable protagonist who makes mistakes and effectively sells us on the fact that we can all, sometimes, be part of the problem – it’s exactly when we’re part of the problem that her actions ultimately shed light on. Goodwin carries the film hand-in-hand with Jason Bateman’s familiar but endearing performance as Nicholas, a red fox con-artist who eventually becomes Judy’s partner after she’s arrived at her Chief's central ultimatum: find a missing otter in 48 hours or resign.
It’s through Nick’s unsettling arc that many adult hearts in the audience will skip a few beats. Nick delivers Zootopia’s unsubtle message about the underlying physical and psychological hold that racism has on minority populations. As a character, he embraces the con-artist persona expected of his species while simultaneously lamenting why. Without spoiling it, I'll just say that Bateman does an excellent job with his material, delivering charm, and cynicism in equal measure, making Nick a perfect representative for the marginalized.
The rest of the cast include Idris Elba as Chief Bogo, Judy’s discriminatory boss, a narcissistic J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Alan Tudyk as a small-time weasel crook, and Shakira as a gazelle and celebrity pop singer, who performs an original song. They all have great chemistry with Goodwin, providing the perfect foils for Judy’s naivete and strong vision for serving the city. And what a city it is – Zootopia not only exhibits a lush palette of bright colors but an interesting structure divided by size and environment for different species. Little Rodentia, Rainforest District and Tundratown are so visually interesting that the film’s 100 minute running time ends up feeling too short. A return to this world feels justified by just how much of it seems to go unseen, making this one of the rare cases of a story that begs for a sequel.
Zootopia is another brilliantly-simple, sometimes unsubtly, always amusing Disney film that serves as an educational tool for the young and a hopeful ode for parents who have found themselves on either end of prejudice. Marvelous to look at and respectful in its dedication to pleasing audiences of all ages with quality writing, cinematography and thematic content, Zootopia is a rare but necessary example of a film that is both entertaining in the simplest ways and a weapon against prejudice itself.