Bursting with a rich blend of timely themes, superb voice work, wonderful visuals and laugh-out-loud wit, Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Zootopia" is quite simply a great time at the movies.
At its heart, the film is a classic oil-and-water buddy comedy but set against a unique, animals-only fantasy world where predator and prey live in harmony. Still, this diverse array of anthropomorphic creatures — they walk, talk, dress and essentially think like humans — must work against their species' inherent stereotypes and others' expectations of them. That the animals largely have jobs that match their customary traits proves one of the narrative's most fertile conceits.
The movie's endearing heroine is Judy Hopps (deftly voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), an energized bunny with 275 siblings and a lifelong dream to become a cop, an ambition she fulfills when she leaves her devoted parents (Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake) and the family carrot farm to join the Zootopia Police Department.
Once in the big city, however, the diminutive Judy is overshadowed by her towering fellow cops — rhinos, elephants, hippos and so on — and summarily dismissed by Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a surly cape buffalo who assigns Judy meter-maid duty instead of allowing her to assist in the investigation of a rash of missing mammals.
That is, until the resourceful Judy gets a lead in the case of a vanished otter whose worried wife (Octavia Spencer) is pleading for his safe return. Against his better judgment, the chief gives Judy 48 hours to solve the crime — or face being fired.
Then there's Nick Wilde (a perfectly cast Jason Bateman), a con man of a fox (a con fox?) who infuriates Judy when she falls for one of his street scams. Judy, in turn, shrewdly hustles Nick, boxing him into helping her find the otter, setting these natural enemies in a race against time and each other.
What follows is an imaginative, well-plotted, fast-paced search for clues that takes Judy and Nick all over Zootopia, where they encounter a menagerie of vivid, at times intriguingly shady characters. These include the city's blustery lion of a mayor (J.K. Simmons), his sheepish sheep of an assistant mayor (Jenny Slate), a Don Corleone-like Arctic shrew (Maurice LaMarche) with polar bear henchmen, a super-mellow yak (Tommy Chong) and a crooked weasel (Alan Tudyk).
A purposefully prolonged set piece that finds Judy and Nick at the local Department of Motor Vehicles is the picture's highlight and a comic gem. In a genius lampoon of this government agency's reputation for sluggish service, the office is run entirely by sloths, who move and talk so slowly the time's-a-wastin' Judy nearly jumps out of her bunny skin.
En route, Judy and Nick of course bond as they begin to respect each other's stereotype-breaking strengths and emotional cores. This dynamic proves particularly instructive within Zootopia, where 90% of its population is considered "prey" and only 10% "predators." In looking humorously — and also sensitively — at the pitfalls of bias and fear-mongering, the terrific script by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston offers a host of essential lessons for our fractious times. If the film's messages occasionally lack subtext, so be it: perhaps better to sink in with younger viewers.
Visually, the movie, directed by Byron Howard ("Bolt," "Tangled") and Rich Moore ("Wreck-It Ralph"), is an inventive, eye-filling feast of color, design and detail. The rendering of the eclectic cast of animals, including mice, giraffes, jaguars, a particularly elastic cheetah (Nate Torrence) and a pop star named Gazelle (Shakira, performing the film's memorable theme song, "Try Everything"), is delightfully vivid.
Perhaps even more impressive is the artistry employed to create the city of Zootopia itself, with its range of districts — habitats, really — scaled and climate-adjusted to accommodate each area's distinct residents (Little Rodentia is a hoot). The downtown "hub" is a dazzling combo of Oz and the Las Vegas Strip. Big kudos go to production designer David Goetz for his gorgeous, whimsical, decidedly brainy feat of what-if urban planning.
It's going to take a lot to beat "Zootopia" for this year's animated film Oscar.
MPAA Rating: PG, for some thematic elements, rude humor and action
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release