In the last few years, we've been treated to a slew of female empowerment movies where the protagonist breaks free of an oppressive regime (usually a shade of patriarchy).
Room did this expertly and gave Brie Larson an Academy Award. Mad Max: Fury Road captivated the Academy in the same way with its story of runaway slaves, led by one of the best female characters of the decade.
And back in 2013, another animated movie brought fairy tale romance to its knees with a queen wishing to escape the confinement of her own home. Disney learned its lesson with how Frozen resonated with audiences, and so they've challenged a brand new set of tropes with Zootopia, a surprisingly refreshing movie filled with essential commentary.
In the world of Zootopia, talking animals share the world in peace, with the titular city "Zootopia" being the epicenter of predator and prey diversity. From the start, the movie makes it clear that relations between predator and prey are at the forefront of our main character's journey; a bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin).
"It's OK to believe in your dreams, but not too much," her worrying parents say as Judy declares that she will one day become a police officer, an unobtainable goal for small bunnies that is typically achieved by larger, fiercer creatures (mostly predators, of course).
But through this world's version of affirmative action, Judy achieves her goal and finally moves to the big city to become a police officer. She comes across a "sly fox" named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), and the odd couple engage in a standard crime caper set in multiple, diverse neighborhoods that would make San Fransokyo blush.
The first half of Zootopia is weirdly average when it comes to story, with the frequent jokes and fast, beautiful action left to make up for some cliches that don't mesh with how the movie will eventually unfold. Familiar lines such as "You've got 48 hours!" and some easy Godfather and Chinatown references damper what could've been a near-flawless script.
Yet the second half of Zootopia is so strong (and important), that it more than makes up for the shortcomings of Act I and II. In fact, it almost strengthens our initially superficial introduction to Judy, Nick, and Zootopia itself.
Speaking of which, the city is truly a wondrous feat of imagination that just happens to boast some of the best animation Disney has ever put forward. It's not as flashy as Big Hero 6, but the character designs and believable expressions that bring these characters to life rival the likes of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
What makes Zootopia (the city) come to life is how much effort and creativity clearly went into making it feel like a believable place that could exist. Buildings, streets, and even trains are designed in a way that would make sense within a world ruled by animals, but it's not overdone to the point of being distracting when the story is front and center.
None of this, however, is the true strength of Zootopia, which deserves to be one of Disney's most celebrated classics in years to come. As mentioned earlier, the movie invalidates and redirects many ideas that Disney animated movies have championed for years, including the act of following your heart, believing you can do anything, and how all of your dreams are possible. But it does this in a way that's helpful for children and adults, not accusatory or self-righteous.
Judy Hopps is, in many ways, a more important character than Furiosa, Ma, Riley Andersen, and Elsa. She represents someone who isn't flawed solely because of who she is and how she's victimized, but by how the world shapes her mistakes. Nick Wilde is very much the side character here, but he's just as crucial to how Judy's arc is fully realized, creating a lovable onscreen friendship that could go on for an entire trilogy without becoming stale.
Overall, Zootopia makes good on its premise "anyone can be anything." There's a reason they've filled this world with anthropomorphic animals, as it pushes its themes of tribalism to extremes that would be nearly impossible for a movie starring humans. Zootopia doesn't just have something meaningful to say, it has the right tools in order to do it.