Disney has once again returned to its roots by telling another cute little story featuring anthropomorphized animals. The family-friendly studio also continues its recent trend of showcasing progressive and topical themes to enlighten youngsters and keep parents from twiddling their thumbs. With "Zootopia," Disney jumps into the discussion of racial stereotyping and how American society operates based upon such prejudice. It is perhaps the most thematically mature outing the studio has yet produced, but that isn't entirely to its benefit. While there is plenty of fun to be had while watching "Zootopia," its preoccupation with thought-provoking morals distracts itself from finding heartwarming moments that could make viewers truly care about its characters.
Ambitious rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) strives to be the first of her kind ever to become a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Years later, she achieves her goal, but once she arrives in the big city, Judy continues to face the same prejudice she has endured since her youth. Determined to make a difference, she persuades buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) to assign her the case of a missing otter, which may be connected to the disappearances of other predatory animals. Along the way, Judy recruits con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to help solve her missing animals case.
The filmmakers at Walt Disney Animation Studios haven't lost their touch when it comes to world-building. Zootopia itself is as imaginative and inspired as any other landscape presented in a Disney film. It's very much a glorified spin on New York City, as animals are housed in specific sectors and ecosystems based on size and species. This concept opens the door for both visual creativity and comedy. Judy, who is often dwarfed by elephants, lions, rhinos and bears, is a giantess in a scene where she pursues a thieving weasel through the streets of a tiny town populated by mice and another small rodents. The film's sense of humor really shines during this sequence, but it soon resorts to familiar, though admittedly amusing, pop culture references to liven the effort.
When it's not focused on allegory, "Zootopia" peppers itself with references to other Disney films (including some that have yet to be released), "The Godfather," and even "Breaking Bad." Some are not as obvious as others, and though the editors keep the pacing as fast and fluid as possible, these nods to films favorited by kids and adults intermittently stop "Zootopia" in its tracks. A brief but blatant reference to Disney's most recent and upcoming pictures is essentially a subliminal commercial for audiences.
"Zootopia" is by no means a weak movie. A lot of credit must be given to Disney for making the bold choice to include sociopolitical commentary in a film about talking animals and doing so rather effectively. However, the choice to communicate such hefty material through the narrative constraints of a buddy-cop comedy leaves the picture feeling a bit weightless. Judy, Nick and the other animals have charm and wit, but since they are bound to the archetypal roles of the buddy-cop genre, there is sadly little room for innovative character development. It's actually pretty sobering for a Disney flick, but even so, "Zootopia" is kept afloat by colorful animation, exceptional voice acting, and proves to be a delightful piece of family entertainment.