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Zootopia review: This is the best animated kids movie about prejudice and police brutality ever

It's also the only one — but it's surprisingly deft in discussing the topic.

Hopps and Wilde go to the DMV, which is run by sloths, of course.
Hopps and Wilde go to the DMV, which is run by sloths, of course.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In this time of strain and terror, Zootopia is the movie you need.



It's goofy and joyful. It has an actual message that it's not shy about expressing directly, one that's filled with depth beyond "be nice to each other." And its screenplay is surprisingly clever on a structural level, reaching what feels like a conclusion and then blowing right past it to make a more nuanced point.

In many ways, Zootopia feels like the film Walt Disney Animation has been working toward for five or six movies now, since Bolt all the way back in 2008. It builds on the wild comedy of Wreck-It Ralph and the subtle, feminist positivity of Frozen in impressive ways — and it even finds a way to make its political message align with its crazy gags.

Okay, it doesn't have any songs as earworm-y as "Let It Go" — but for beleaguered parents, that might be a blessing in disguise.

Here are five reasons you should check it out this weekend, maybe even if you don't have kids.

1) It's a surprisingly good police procedural

At its core, Zootopia is a crime story. It's about 14 different animals who have gone missing in the film's title city — and Judy Hopps, the optimistic young rabbit (the first of her species on the police force) who tries to find just one of them and ends up stumbling upon a conspiracy larger than she can imagine.

Yes, you have seen this story before — it's basically the plot of the classic detective drama Chinatown, but it shares certain elements with many other films, too — and there are a few instances where the right clue too conveniently falls into Hopps's lap.

But Zootopia still succeeds as a child's first introduction to detective fiction. Hopps follows clue after clue, drawing little connections here and there, and when she's truly stymied, she can turn to her best source — and eventual ad hoc partner — a con man fox named Nick Wilde.

2) The voice casting is spot-on

Ginnifer Goodwin has long been one of Hollywood's most underappreciated actresses. She's probably best known for the ABC drama Once Upon a Time, which only occasionally gives her material worthy of her talents; outside of that, she's been fantastic in a wide variety of projects — most notably Big Love and Ed.

She's terrific as Hopps, too, and it turns out that voice acting is something she's well-suited to. When the rabbit has a couple of late-film revelations that force her to confront some deeply ugly things about herself, Goodwin makes those moments land with a ton of emotional force.

She's joined by Jason Bateman as Wilde, and the dryly comic actor is a great match for a guy who will do anything to make a buck. J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, and even pop star Shakira also contribute excellent work; the only bum note is Idris Elba as the police chief, who forces the gruffness a bit too much.

3) The world is filled with terrific details

This three-doored train is just one neat little visual detail in Zootopia.
This three-door train is just one neat little visual detail in Zootopia.

The hallmark of productions from Disney Animation (as well as its sister studio, Pixar) is the level of detail that goes into what ends up onscreen. Wreck-It Ralph bustled with video game in-jokes, while Big Hero 6 created a kind of urban, utopian setting for its action-packed story.

Zootopia hails from Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore and Tangled co-director Byron Howard, and together the two have come up with a world that surpasses the usual "animals doing people things" construct common to kids comedies about worlds filled with anthropomorphism.

Yes, some of it involves silly puns or pop culture references. But there's also the way that all of Zootopia must find ways to accommodate giraffes' long necks, and the tiny little doors on trains that let mice in and out, and the Habitrails running through a little hamster city. This is a fun movie to just look at.

4) The story's structure is surprisingly unconventional

There's a point in Zootopia where you'll think to yourself, "Huh. Seems like things are wrapping up." And for all intents and purposes, it's the point where the story effectively concludes. It could be an ending — though it wouldn't be a very good one.

Thankfully, viewers still have the entire third act to go. The screenplay (credited to Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, but with Moore, Howard, and Jennifer Lee receiving "story" credits) isn't interested in when Zootopia's plot wraps up. It's interested in when Hopps's journey ends — when she finally learns the lessons she's supposed to learn that will help her be a better rabbit. (Early on, the film takes a good long while setting up the character, so we know exactly why she is the way she is.)

This sort of thing — focus on when a character's arc is done instead of when the plot itself is over; make sure we understand a character's motivations — is supposed to be screenwriting 101, the basic blueprint for a typical blockbuster. But too many big-budget films forget all about that blueprint nowadays. Zootopia is a reminder of how refreshing and even surprising it can feel when it's done well.

5) The movie's message — about prejudice and police brutality — is layered and well-delivered

Wilde and Hopps have to overcome their prejudices about each other to work together.

I'll have more about this after the film is released, but Zootopia is the best animated kids comedy about prejudice and the roots of police brutality ever made. Granted, that description pretty much only fits Zootopia, but it's still surprising to see how well the movie pulls it off.

Simply put, Zootopia is about what it means to be suspicious of somebody else, simply because of who they are. And by situating that story among animals — who already have natural, antagonistic predator-prey relationships — it can explore that dynamic without feeling preachy.

Not every aspect of Zootopia is successful. For one thing, many of the gags in a movie about how stereotypes aren't great are based on the most clichéd animal jokes you can think of. (Weasels are sneaky, sloths are slow, etc.) But the film is surprisingly forthright about how everyone has prejudices they should make an effort to combat — and that's particularly true of those in positions of authority.

Kids movies don't always swing this hard, and when they do, they often miss. That Zootopia connects doesn't just make it a good time at the movies — it makes the film feel utterly of the moment.

Zootopia airs early screenings on the evening of Thursday, March 3. It opens everywhere Friday, March 4.

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