During a school play, young girl bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) declares her dream of becoming a police officer. Afterward, her staunchly middlebrow parents try to discourage her from such an ambition, bluntly saying she should embrace the pleasures of complacency. But not even a terrifying encounter with the school’s fox bully, Gideon Gray (Phil Johnston), is enough to shake her resolve. Zootopia promises, then, a homily about following one’s bliss. But in compressing Judy’s arduous uphill climb to reach the promised land of her dreams into a five-minute montage, the film more richly homes in on her discovery of the complexities of the real world as she learns to navigate the challenges of life as a cop in a big city, assigned to the titular Zootopia, while attempting to hold onto her optimism in the process.
It’s the specific nature of those real-world complexities that gives Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s film its thematic importance. The world of Zootopia is one in which predator and prey coexist in harmony, but despite the hype for this ostensibly post-racial paradise, different species continue to live in separate communities, and prejudice still lingers in the air. Even now, an elephant-run ice cream parlor still chooses to refuse to serve a fox simply on the basis of class. Zootopia turns out to be, in large part, an allegory of racism, with Judy, through her uneasy alliance with a sly trickster fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), as they solve a mystery revolving around disappeared predators, discovering harsh lessons about the bigotry that still exists not only in society, but within her own ostensibly open-minded self.
But Zootopia goes deeper in its allegorizing, tapping into the volatile nature of identity politics. Judy’s dream of being a cop is more broadly painted as a fight to break out of preconceived societal notions—a battle that most creatures around her seem to have already conceded long ago, as evidenced not only by her father’s discouraging words, but also her law-enforcement superiors’ initial refusal to take her seriously on account of her being a diminutive female bunny in a male-dominated environment. Nick eventually reveals himself to be a victim of such assumptions as well, as noted in a flashback to a childhood incident in which fellow creatures rejected him from membership of a club simply because of his species.
All of this social commentary is wrapped up in a film that plays as a kiddie version of a buddy-cop mystery, with the odd couple of Judy and Nick diving into Zootopia’s underworld—complete with a mafia of mice led by a Don Corleone type—in order to uncover a nefarious plot targeting the city’s predators. The film has plenty of playful comic sequences and inspired sight gags, imagining in one scene Zootopia’s DMV being run by sloths. Visually, there’s an incredible amount of detail to take in, as the titular city is richly imagined as the settings of Metropolis, Blade Runner, Brazil, and other such fantastical cinematic municipalities. In the end, though, it’s the film’s nuanced take on race and identity that stays in the memory—most notably the way it’s willing to complicate its idealism by honestly acknowledging the difficulties in trying to achieve an equal society.