In ‘Zootopia,’ furries and freaks get a fair shake

Zootopia boasts a milestone: the first openly gay cheetah in cinema history. A minor character, to be sure: although a cop, Clawhauser just answers the phone and squeals when watching video of pop star Gazelle on his smart phone. 

Shakira voices Gazelle, the first of many upsets of expectations in Zootopia, last spring’s megahit that strikes me as the hippest Disney comedy in years. Key to its success is the chemistry between Nick Fox and European rabbit Judy Hopps, a partnership closer to Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in The Late Show or Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run than 48 Hours or even Identity Thief, in which Jason Bateman also contributed a voice, albeit to a part that was supposed to be human.

No human beings disturb Zootopia, an urban metropolis where the hunter and the hunted mingle in harmony, not least when Judy gives them parking tickets. Graduating with top honors from the police academy in fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Judy is stumped when Chief Bog (Idris Elba) assigns her to meter maid duties: bunnies aren’t tough enough or smart enough, a line she’ll hear repeatedly. After almost arresting Nick for trying to hustle her, the two form the usual cinematic Unusual Partnership to find the missing Emmitt Otter in forty-eight hours, the chief’s deadline. This abduction forms part of an elaborate scheme involving the extract from psychotropic plants, capable of returning predators to a savage state.

What distinguishes Zootopia from its predecessors is the thoroughness with which directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, aided by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston’s script, fill the corners. Judy and Nick visit a nudist colony run by a fly-ridden yak. A Vito Corleone double makes an appearance granting favors on his daughter’s wedding. The most sustained laughs, however, occur in a DMV whose employees are sloths (in a terrific sight gag, Nick’s contact there has a mug that says “You Want It WHEN?”). Those are stereotypes, of course. So is casting lemmings as — guess what — bankers, not to mention Tommy Chong as that yak. But Zootopia‘s subtler mission is to accept stereotypes if the creatures get chances to break them. Lapses occur. To stress their shared biographies, Nick shares a story about his cub-era dreams of himself becoming a cop that’s as banal as anything in a soap opera. In a film whose stated purpose reeks of nobility, any show of irreverence is welcome; Zootopia is an Obama-age movie, in which the efficacy of cops, the rights of minorities, and “diversity” as a welcome emollient are emphasized so long as the system remains intact and the rebels are cool about it.

But Zootopia rests on the able shoulders of Judy and Nick, and, given the movie’s revenue, audiences can count on a sequel in the next eighteen months (we’ll need another valentine to differences should Donald Trump win the presidency). Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy generate enough sparks for me to wonder if Howard-Moore didn’t consider a PG version of Zootopia in which animals crossbreed (Nick’s the foxiest vulpes since George Clooney). “Maybe every predator looks aggressive to a rabbit,” the chief scoffs. Maybe so. Every charmer looks sexy to a critic.

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