It’s fair to say Donald Trump would scream “loser” were he to see Disney’s latest animated feature, “Zootopia.” A film that celebrates diversity and comes down hard of stereotyping and fear-mongering would certainly not appeal to the Republican’s current presidential frontrunner.
Of course, animated features don’t happen overnight so it’s simply fortuitous that Disney has such a timely cartoon ready for youngsters and parents at spring break. While one might complain the movie comes off a tad preachy — only a tad, mind you — there’s no doubt this is a message many desperately need to hear at the moment.
I don’t mean to get all deep-dish on you, however. This is a family cartoon, with anthropomorphic mammals, pratfalls, chases, jeopardy, heart-felt emotions and hilarious satire. It’s not “Animal Farm” — although, come to think of it, its animators probably won’t mind if you take a few allegorical hints.
Sharply directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”), along with co-director Jared Bush, who shares screenplay credit with Phil Johnston, the comedy begins in familiar Disney fashion with an underdog, or in this case an under bunny, who’s mightily determined to prove everyone wrong by becoming the first rabbit on the police force of Zootopia.
So like Dumbo, Cinderella and the Little Mermaid before her, this boundary-pushing bunny, Judy Hopps (voiced by a spritely Ginnifer Goodwin), takes charge of her own destiny to finish first in her class at the police academy, thus earning her way onto the force.
Which takes the viewer from bunny farmlands to the booming mammal metropolis of Zootopia. Here you get your first inkling of what Disney’s animators are up to. This wildly colorful place, soaring to the heavens at a distance like a dazzling Oz, when finally entered turns out to be a cityscape zoned for different mammal cultures.
There’s frigid Tundratown for polar bears; hot dry Sahara Square for desert animals; Little Rodentia, everything significantly reduced in size, for the tiniest mammals; and so on. Everyone is on equal footing but, well, they are all only mammals.
Thus stereotypes exist, such as elephants never forget and foxes are untrustworthy and rabbits are timid. Stereotypes are supposedly banished in this enlightened society but, well, prejudices do rise to the surface.
The majority of animals, 90%, are prey while the minority, 10%, are predators. Civilization has supposedly bred such instincts out of one and all — everyone exists in perfect harmony — but, well, DNA is DNA.
(You do wonder, however, in this mammal utopia what everyone eats if it’s no longer each other. Okay, bunnies can get by on carrots but what do those lions eat, pray tell?)
Judy’s boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a tough cape buffalo who heads up the Zootopia PD, mostly consisting of very large animals, looks upon her as a token bunny, despite being celebrated for her achievement by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), a blustery politician-lion. So Bogo assigns her to parking duty.
In the course of her duties as a glorified meter maid, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily scam-artist fox. This big-city dude has no trouble hustling the country-bred Judy on their first encounter.
She’s ready for him though the next time they meet. As things turn out, Judy, determined to prove herself to her boss, seizes the change to crack a missing-mammal case, which means partnering with Nick to solve the mystery. (Essentially, she cons the con-artist.)
So “Zootopia” moves on to a buddy-cop movie, of sorts. And the deeper this duo digs into the investigation, which naturally ranges across the many communities of Zootopia, the more it looks like mammal DNA might be making a comeback. Evidence points to primal instincts being at the bottom of several missing mammal cases.
The movie features a number of twists, turns, double crosses and revelations worthy of a detective story. Yet the animators keep their satirical eyes open for opportunities for comic fun. Which takes advantage of the talents of a terrific voice cast.
There’s Benjamin Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the ZPD’s dopey cheetah-cop receptionist, who devours donuts by the box-full so that his svelte shape has ballooned to plus-size.
The city’s Department of Motor Vehicles that is run by — of course it would be — a bunch of sloths! Its fastest one, going by the name of Flash (Raymond Persi), can take an entire minute to say, “Good morning.”
There’s Tundratown’s crime boss, Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarsh), a tiny arctic shrew with a voice highly reminiscent of Brando’s Don Corleone. Then a blissed-out hippie Yax the Yak (who else but Tommy Chong) provides a big clue by consulting an elephant who can’t remember a thing.
Much of the movie’s fun comes in how the animators play with animal characteristics. Judy’s bunny ears, for instance, become a kind of emotional messaging system, droopy when downcast but bolt upright when alert or aroused to action.
Nick’s foxy face telegraphs his fast-working mind as eyes and mouth tip off the many sly mental maneuvers he employs to keep control of all situations.
Gazelle (pop singer Shakira) with busy eyelashes and long curly bangs is all slinky moves and lithe star turns as she belts out the city’s theme song “Try Everything” (co-written by hit-makers Sia and Stargate).
Thus “Zootopia’s” animals harken back to the more cartoonish ones in Disney’s old animated films rather than pseudo-realistic ones in, say, “The Lion King.” They wear clothes and cross back and forth between human and animal behavior as real animal attributes take on human antics.
Director Howard says his favorite childhood Disney cartoon is “Robin Hood,” if that gives you an idea.
The layout of Zootropia with a Savanna Central, where all mammals, big and small, mix in a downtown area; the bright daytime colors and dark nights in spooky urban jungles; a vast array of animal characters yet none without a story function to fulfill; and the comic energy that propels the story every forward mark this as one of the brightest and best features to emerge from WDAS since Pixar guru John Lasseter took control.
Following on the heels of such winners as “Big Hero 6” (2014) and “Frozen” (2013), “Zootopia” demonstrates how complete the Disney comeback now is.
And I’d really love to see an encounter between Judy Hopps and Donald Trump! My money is on the bunny.
Opens: March 4, 2016 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Nate Torrence, Shakira, Maurice LaMarsh.
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Screenwriters: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston
Story by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Phil Johnston, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Jennifer Lee
Producer: Clark Spencer
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Production designer: David Goetz
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Kersavage
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: Fabian Rawley, Jeremy Milton
PG rating, 108 minutes