When a film has a positive message — especially for kids — it’s tempting to give it a pass. How can you argue against pursuing your dreams? How can you dismiss a plea for mutual respect and peaceful coexistence? How can you want anything but love and cuddles for the cutest cartoon rabbit since Thumper?
But you can want the message delivered with a little finesse, keeping the intended audience in mind. Disney’s latest is clever and endearing, but it’s the animated equivalent of a pro-diversity pep rally.
The twist is that it’s set in a world inhabited entirely by nonhuman mammals, where former predators and prey live together in harmony, centered around the bustling title city.
The newest member of Zootopia’s police department is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), an adorable, energetic country bunny who benefits from what’s essentially an affirmative action program. Stuck working as a meter maid, Judy is determined to prove her worth by solving a tough disappearance case. Her disdainful captain (Idris Elba) gives her 48 hours to do the impossible.
In a movie like this nothing is impossible, so Judy enlists the help of con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who knows every inch of the city and is amused by this would-be tough cop who looks like a stuffed toy. Their investigation leads to a sinister conspiracy and reveals the suspicion and distrust beneath Zootopia’s happy veneer.
The parallels to our own divided society aren’t exactly subtle, but many will sail right past the target demographic. How many children get the nuances of condescending “compliments” and the appropriation of racial slurs? The adults might be laughing (perhaps uncomfortably), but kids will be waiting for the next sight gag.
Those sight gags are entertaining, especially if you pay attention to background details. Zootopia accommodates creatures of all shapes and sizes, so tiny doors for mice exist alongside elephantine amenities. Pop culture references are frequent and amusing, especially when they zing other Disney movies.
Some of the humor is even more adult than the social issues, staying just inside the PG rating, particularly in a scene involving a nudist spa run by a stoned yak.
Yes, you just read that. He’s even voiced by Tommy Chong.
There are eight people with story or screenplay credits, which explains the scattered tone. Judy’s inspirational journey is darkened by violence that might scare little ones. The central mystery is unnecessarily complicated and drags the movie close to the two-hour mark, so expect restlessness. The actors are all at the top of their games, but the heavy-handed dialogue challenges even the best of them.
“Zootopia” deserves respect for trying to tackle themes that most films, of any kind, wouldn’t touch. It’s hard not to wonder how much more depth and insight Disney’s subsidiary/partner, Pixar, might have brought to the material. On its own, Disney brings a cast of charming characters and typically stunning visuals, but the rest is more than the studio of “It’s a Small World” can handle.
Find more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
Rated PG. Time: 1:48.