There are days when you go to the movies hoping to be transported to a different world, one completely unlike your own, one where the fantastical is the everyday and childhood dreams and fears unfold for you in stunning display. Zootopia is such a film, bringing us a colorful city zoo. There isn’t a mammal that is left out – Disney has ensured that even shrews and moles and porcupines have a home here – and you get to meet them all. The film is a visual feast, from start to credits, a balance of bright pastels in the city’s downtown and darker, deep hues in its seedier alleyways and districts. This is magical, otherworldly stuff, and you will want to follow the characters no matter which road they travel.
In Zootopia, we get to bounce along with Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), our energetic and violet-eyed heroine. Judy has wanted to be Zootopia’s first rabbit police officer on a force dominated by much larger cats (and rhino and wolves and polar bears!) and led by an intimidating blue ox. Along her travels she encounters the sly yet likeable fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who becomes her unlikely partner in the film’s plot to unravel in only 48 hours one of the city’s biggest mysteries.
The details here are delightful. Every twitch of bunny nose is almost visceral for the audience; each eyelash countable if given the chance before the next scene. The use of 3D, which in other films has felt almost gratuitous, is only of added benefit to the viewer. For 108 minutes, the audience is immersed in this world. We keep pace with Judy in a sweet police academy montage scene and in a run through the gorgeous Candyland-like Zootopia, with its swaying giraffe necks and with mice departing from trains through miniature doors. Judy’s bunny hometown train station has carrots serving as building columns in one scene; you will even catch one of the police station animals texting in the background of another. You’ll buy all of these details and hardly have time to appreciate them before the next ones come onto the screen.
Disney has set high expectations for bringing its animated characters to life and this effort only raises that bar. There are no humans in this film, but I left feeling it entirely possible that the sensitive and sweet spotted Officer Clawhauser just very well could be swooning over a famous singer somewhere in my city, or that Judy’s old-fashioned bunny parents could be setting up their vegetable stand down the street. And these characters are funny. Really funny. I laughed unabashedly probably more times than a grown woman might be expected to. There are animal puns galore – one of the trailer’s taglines is a proud “Like nothing you’ve seen be-fur” – and plenty of jokes both the children and parents in my audience laughed at together.
This is, of course, no small feat, and a testament not only to the excellent animation but the casting of these actors. In past animated films, immediate recognition of the actor behind the voice was distracting; it was almost too difficult to separate them from their Hollywood personas. In this film, only Bateman’s voice is instantly recognizable, and as luck would have it he is perfectly cast as our cunning fox, smooth and sly and eventually a bit of a teddy bear.
Goodwin is wonderful as our spunky wee rabbit, able to project both the vulnerability and the enthusiasm the story demands. I was surprised to see in the credits some other favorites here: the marvelous Octavia Spencer, the amazing and too-seldom-seen Bonnie Hunt and the wonderful Idris Elba. Even Shakira has a fun role; while her voice is not the first I might have chosen for the main song of a children’s film, it works here. By the time of its second play at the close of the film, children in the front of the theater were dancing to the tune. (And while unlikely to achieve the replay status of “Let it Go,” parents may want to prepare to hear this more than twice on longer car trips.)
It’s worth noting that Zootopia’s themes are heavier than in your average animated film. Bullying, race and institutionalized persecution are all in focus here. It seems unlikely that younger children will extract these easily without discussion, but they are certain to appreciate the unfair treatment of those who are different and the age-old and often unsuccessful approach of judging others by appearances. These are handled relatively deftly, but with less clarity and accessibility than last year’s Inside Out did when tackling weightier emotional issues.
If Zootopia’s sloths have anything to say about it, you’ll be laughing too hard to care.
Running Time. 108 minutes. Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action. Opens in wide release March 4, 2016.