Zootopia is an Immersive and Timely Toon Noir About Systemic Racism

By  · Published on February 29th, 2016

The word I most want to use to describe Zootopia is “cute.” But the movie has this running joke where “cute” is sort of a racial slur. The main character, a rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), is paid the compliment and replies that only rabbits are allowed to call each other that. The Disney animated feature is set in a world of anthropomorphic – but true to size – mammals living together in apparent harmony. And its story is one based on the idea that this world is still fraught with underlying, mostly unspoken racism. Well, speciesism. Calling rabbits “cute” is basically referring to them as inferior citizens.

Judy is definitely not inferior, though. Following a prologue that resourcefully uses a children’s pageant to explain the evolutionary back story of how predators and prey found peace, if not equality, the little rabbit grows up and proves everyone wrong about what her kind can and can not do. She leaves rural carrot-farm country and heads to the big city, where she graduates at the top of her class at the police academy. She’s actually the first of her species to ever join Zootopia’s police force, which mainly consists of large beasts, and despite her achievements at school, she’s immediately disrespected on the job by being assigned parking ticket duty.

While overachieving as a “meter maid” (a term that should come across comparable to “cute” here), Judy continues to be on the lookout for bigger crimes worthy of her talents, while being encouraged and supported for greater things by the deputy mayor, a meek little sheep named Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate) – obviously, it’s a lion (J.K. Simmons) that actually leads the city – who thinks little animals need to stick together in Zootopia.

Eventually, Judy manages to convince the police chief, a no-nonsense cape buffalo (Idris Elba), to let her take on a missing otter case. To help in the investigation, she teams up with a con-artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also assists in guiding the rabbit and the movie’s audience around the different, ecosystem-based neighborhoods of their culturally diverse metropolis, uncovering a massive city-wide conspiracy in the process.

Zootopia is a toon-noir in the tradition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, only this time the prejudices are between carnivorous and herbivorous animals rather than humans and drawn characters – the same goes for its conflicting-personality buddy-cop pairing. And its navigation of crime story tropes is as basic as having an obligatory The Godfather homage. Still, as scripted by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, with additional story credits to directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and Frozen’s Jennifer Lee, it’s a very clever movie with the sort of meticulous world building that’s ripe for the spawning of inventive humor, much of it puns. Plus one terrifically sly nod to a character from another recent Disney animated feature (hint: it involves the work of voice actor Alan Tudyk).

There are moments in Zootopia that are so flush with detail that it’s hard not to feel immersed in a fully functioning realm. When Judy arrives in the busy city, there’s a real sense of how overwhelming yet exciting this place is, and like the character, we’re swarmed by all there is to see and process (especially if you catch the movie in 3D). I was left wanting to revisit many of these scenes and also wanting even more from this world. Part of the latter desire, however, is due to Zootopia feeling smaller and smaller as a place as the movie goes on. Everything is so neatly connected, the plot so simply encompassing of every character we encounter.

I guess Chinatown makes Los Angeles feel small, too. And the tightness of Zootopia is hardly its biggest problem, especially considering all those times that it does make you want to pause and appreciate every inch of the urban clutter when it’s there. If there’s any fault to the film, it’s in the way it drags to a sloth’s pace (and not in a way that recalls the movie’s funniest bit involving sloths running the DMV) toward the end of the second act. Fortunately, the third picks it back up with a sequence set in the most fitting location for a movie’s climactic action since the home-improvement store battle in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

As is the case for most of Disney’s non-Pixar animated features of late, Zootopia is plenty imaginative and entertaining without quite the level of heart that’s found in something like Inside Out. But while its emotional level is more aligned with that of Wreck-It Ralph (the previous feature helmed by Moore) – sweet but never tear-inducing – its main theme of systemic racism is the studio’s heaviest since the consumerist satire of Wall-E, and it has turned out to be even more essential in its timeliness. That combined with the most intricately interesting anthropomorphized animal world Disney has given us since the TV series TaleSpin makes Zootopia one of the most deeply satisfying American animated movies in years.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.