“Zootopia” might be the cleverest bait-and-switch Disney has ever pulled. All of the teaser ads and promotional materials are pushing the adorable Judy Hopps and her very funny encounter with the sloths running the DMV. What they conveniently leave out is that the movie is an on-point commentary about prejudice and racism, their origins, how they’re used as a weapon for political gain, and how we’re all guilty of them in one form or another. In fact, it’s tempting to resent the film a little, because it explains these subjects to children better than most parents ever could.
The film opens with an expository children’s play that explains how predator and prey in the animal kingdom have found a way to co-exist without, you know, one eating the other (though what the predators eat instead is never mentioned, outside of doughnuts). One of the stars of that play is the idealistic bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who announces on stage that she intends to be the world’s first bunny police officer, and many years later, against all odds and her parents’ wishes, she succeeds. She is transferred to the big city of Zootopia, where Sergeant Bogo (Idris Elba) assigns her to…parking duty. Ouch.
The urge to fight crime is strong, though, and Judy zones in on a seemingly untrustworthy fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, whose character bears an uncanny resemblance), only to become a victim to one of his many cons. Judy is desperate to prove herself to Bogo, and agrees to take on the missing case of an otter against Bogo’s wishes. Bogo initially fires her for insubordination, but instead gives her 48 hours to find the otter, after which Judy must resign if she fails. Judy leans on Nick – whom she has under her thumb because she has enough evidence to have him locked up – to guide her through the big city, even though Nick tends to cause more problems than he solves.