‘Zootopia’ : Welcome to the jungle

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Zootopia (2016)

Directed by Bryan Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Behind the fluffy bunny tails and the adorable oversized ears of a fennec fox is an urgently relevant message about discrimination, affirmative action, and fear-mongering. The far-right conservatives are about to have a fit. Your kid might think “Zootopia” is just a funny, exciting movie about a rabbit detective and her fox friend solving a web of crime in a visually beautiful animal wonderland. But you’ll see the adult themes and cultural references, both humorous and unexpectedly deep.

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Ever since she was just a little bunny, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, Snow White in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”) has been told to push aside her dreams of being the first rabbit to become a cop and settle for being a carrot farmer like her parents (Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt) and siblings. But she was determined to get from her small town to the big city, Zootopia, and join their police force. And after just one police academy training montage, she made it. But the big city isn’t all she dreamed. Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) doesn’t respect her. She’s just a small, weak bunny. The police force needs strong, tough predators. Of course, the days of animal instincts are long gone. They’ve all gone vegetarian. Or so we thought. When 14 animals mysteriously go missing, the police force is baffled. But Officer Hopps and her new friend Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist fox Hopps blackmails into helping her, stumble upon a conspiracy that links the cases together.

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An all-star voice cast really couldn’t have been better. From Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as Zootopia’s lion mayor to Tommy Chong playing a nudist hippie yak, every voice is a perfect fit. Ginnifer Goodwin is just the fast-talking, cheery, upbeat spirit Officer Hopps needs to be. Jason Bateman plays Nick’s suave, chill, cunning slyness to foxy perfection. But “Zootopia” excels more so for its script, which has a keen sense of the world around it. The animators created a full, rich new animal kingdom, and went to great lengths to explain how it works. You feel like you’re there. It operates much like the world we’re familiar with, with relatable adult situations. Judy Hopps’ parents are afraid to see her off to the big city, with its predatory foxes who are never any good. That is, until Judy sees that they aren’t all bad. In fact, most aren’t. It provides a strong anti-discrimination overtone. It’s funny and cute, but make no mistake—“Zootopia” is a message movie more blatant than even Disney is used to propagating. But this is a good one. It takes the city of Zootopia to task for its segregated restaurants, which denies service to those who are different. Sounds like that Arkansas shooting range with the “No Muslims allowed” sign, perhaps? Or the program that allows a bunny like Hopps to get into the police academy in the first place, despite her obvious physical differences. Sort of like animal affirmative action. Or even the mentions that the “others” only make up 10% of the population of Zootopia, and for the safety of the majority the whole minority population should be dealt with. “Of course it will work. Fear always works,” one of the community leaders says. Sounds almost like a certain fear-mongering Presidential candidate. “Zootopia” finds itself firmly in the moment. Or, for that matter, in any number of moments in this country’s divisive history. The message is not to judge groups of people just because they’re different than you. It’s good for kids to hear. And frankly, a lot of adults, too.

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Don’t get me wrong—“Zootopia” isn’t as depressing or heavy-handed as I just described it. You’ll also find fun references to classic film tropes, and to iconic films themselves. No spoilers on those. At its core is a twisty mystery plot that takes Hopps and Wilde to every corner of Zootopia, so we get to see the tundra, rain forest, and Sahara districts, as well as the other unique communities that make up the bustling metropolitan. “Zootopia” makes a strong early case for Best Animated Feature by serving its moral in an easily digestible way. Believe me when I say that “Zootopia” truly is for everyone. It’s equal-opportunity fun.

8/10

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