"ZOOTOPIA" — 3½ stars — voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate; PG (some thematic elements, rude humor and action); in general release
The trailers will tell you that "Zootopia" is a fun, animated adventure in an urban world where animals walk and talk like humans. What they won't tell you is that the story inside this world is a dark and edgy mystery with an underdog at its heart.
The underdog is a rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a spirited, rookie cop on her first job in the big city. She came from a small agricultural community — her 275 farmer siblings are changing the world "one carrot at a time" — but Judy's lifelong passion was always to make it to Zootopia.
Zootopia is the thriving metropolis capital of a hypothetical world where animals have evolved beyond their savage predator-prey roles. Walking, talking and dressing like modern humans, Zootopia's inhabitants coexist in a city that is sub-divided into boroughs such as Sahara Square, Tundratown and the Rain Forest District, much like a contemporary zoo.
Despite the predator-prey cease-fire, "Zootopia's" world still has its cultural boundaries. Judy is the first bunny to ever graduate from the police academy, and it's clear from the start that she'll have to fight for her spot on the force. She's crushed when Chief Bogo (an imposing water buffalo voiced by Idris Elba) gives her a meter maid beat on her first day, though her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) are thrilled with the news.
Determined to prove herself, Judy takes up one of 14 different missing animal cases throughout the city. With the unwilling help of a streetwise fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy jumps headfirst into her assignment, only to discover she's sitting on the top of a much more nefarious iceberg that will threaten the delicate predator-prey balance.
Judy and Nick's investigation turns "Zootopia" into a suspenseful thriller that delves into the city's cartoon underworld, including a humorous encounter with a Marlon Brando-parodying Arctic Shrew named Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), the highest reaches of city government under Mayor Lionheart (JK Simmons), and a DMV run by sloths. It also explores some adult issues such as prejudice and human nature. There's plenty for the little kids, but "Zootopia" is a lot more clever and insightful than your by-the-numbers animated fare.
"Zootopia" works hard to balance its lighthearted sight gags against more mature wit designed for the parents in the audience. It isn't easy to keep both audiences interested in a film like this, but directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have struck a strong chord, and bucking expectations might be “Zootopia’s” most emergent theme.
Frugal parents should be free to skip the 3-D premium, since kids won’t miss much opting for a 2-D presentation. But even in 2-D, "Zootopia’s" animation is still strong on creativity. Its different boroughs give animators loads of opportunity to experiment — a chase through a miniature rodent community is a fun highlight —and the diversity of climates in a single city is a fun foil to the Star Wars tradition of one planet equals one climate.
It may also be worth noting that the PG-rated "Zootopia" is a tad darker than some traditional animation and contains moments that might be frightening to the youngest of the young. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent to enjoying a film that embodies a rich blend of story, message and entertainment.
"Zootopia" is rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action; running time: 108 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.