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What can an animated movie about anthropomorphized animals teach us about modern racism? Really, quite a lot.

Film review: "Zootopia" 

Animal kingdom

It might not come as much of a shock that Disney's newest animated film, "Zootopia," features a cast of adorable anthropomorphized animals who can talk, wear clothes, and take on real-life occupations like police officer, farmer, and even pop singer. But what may be a bit more surprising are the clever ways in which directors Byron Howard ("Tangled") and Rich Moore ("Wreck-It Ralph") utilize this bright, zippy, and happy little world to tell a tale about the evils of institutionalized racism, sexism, and the role of a police force in modern society.

The narrative follows idealistic Judy Hopps (a charming Ginnifer Goodwin), who's dreamed since childhood of becoming the first-ever rabbit police officer. A plucky go-getter, she makes it through police academy training at the top of her class, and earns a job in the gleaming metropolis of Zootopia. With distinct neighborhoods made up of artificially created ecosystems (from frozen tundras to damp rainforests), the city is a place where predator and prey live together in relative harmony. But when the chief of police (Idris Elba) makes it clear to Judy that she's just a minority hire, she begins to grow discouraged.

Luckily, Judy's given the chance to prove herself more than just a "token bunny" when she's tasked with solving a missing person (err, otter) case. She follows a trail that eventually leads her headlong into a vast conspiracy that requires her to team up with sly, con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

From here, the film morphs into a noir-ish crime tale, complete with references to "The Godfather," "Chinatown," and a bit of "Breaking Bad," while offering an entertaining variation on the mismatched buddy cop formula. Judy must face her latent prejudices about the shifty fox -- at one point, she even condescendingly praises him for being so "articulate" -- while Nick learns just as much from her.

Utilizing the animal kingdom's fear of predators turns "Zootopia" into a rather smart allegory about prejudice and stereotyping, though admittedly the message gets a little muddled when you stop to consider that in the natural world, prey actually have very real reasons to fear predators. Still when the result is carried out with such imagination and ambition, it's easy to play along and accept the rules of the movie's world that have been established by the film's writers. The movie has a surprisingly dense plot, particularly impressive when you consider that the plots of most children's movies can fit on a cocktail napkin.

The message couldn't be timelier; as the citizens of Zootopia are pitted against one another -- with a police-incited panic that results in 90 percent of the population living in fear of the other 10 percent -- it's not hard to see the parallels to our own world and its systemic racism against minorities. Reports told of a major shift occurring during the film's production, and I'd be curious to know how much was a result of incorporating these elements, which could have been ripped directly from the evening's news.

The detailed world-building is impressive, and I wouldn't be the least bit shocked to hear about Disney greenlighting a sequel; there are certainly plenty more stories one could tell with the pieces that have been set up here. The imaginative, beautifully-rendered environments look great. Though I saw the film in IMAX 3D, the format isn't really necessary: it's the characters that make the movie pop.

Playing off their own personas, Goodwin and Bateman are great together; Hopps and Wilde are instantly appealing characters in a movie that's loaded with them. The rest of the eclectic voice cast is rounded out by Shakira, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, and Alan Tudyk. The film incorporates its goofy animal-based humor to great effect; a sequence involving the sloth employees of the DMV is a masterwork of comedic timing.

Loaded with heart, "Zootopia" is relevant when several of our presidential candidates are deliberately appealing to the very worst ideals in our country's population. You may consider its "racism is bad!" storyline as kid's stuff, but this election cycle has made it abundantly clear there are plenty of adults out there who never got the message. A Disney animated feature is highly likely to be seen by a lot more people than the evening news, giving "Zootopia" the unique opportunity to preach not just to the choir. And that makes it something truly special.

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