By Richard Roeper | Movie Columnist
Just a few days after the stardust has settled on the 88th Annual Academy Awards, allow me to tell you about the first surefire candidate for a nomination for NEXT year’s Oscars.
“Zootopia” is one of my favorite animated movies. Not one of my favorite animated movies of the last year or two, or of the last decade, or in recent memory. It’s one of my favorite animated movies, period.
If it doesn’t receive a nomination for animated feature, I’ll eat more carrots than are consumed in the entirety of this magical and wonderful rabbit tail. Er, tale.
Families will want to wrap their arms around this film and embrace it for years.
Now and forever, animators can’t resist stories of anthropomorphic creatures that walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive cars, exist in family units and of course talk in perfect, wisecracking English.
Sometimes the humans exist on the periphery; other times, as in this case, it’s an all-animal world, with all of the creatures relative true to the size and shape of real-world bunnies and foxes and mice and elephants and giraffes.
And what an amazing world this is, with districts ranging from the rural Bunny Borough to the upscale Sahara Square to the frigid Tundra Town to the title city, a sprawling metropolis where predators and prey co-exist in relatively peaceful harmony, as these mammals are thousands of years past the barbaric old days when predators actually fed on prey.
Predators make up just 10 percent of the population, but they do hold most of the positions of power and influence, and they still seem to dominate the world by sheer virtue of their size and strength. For example, the mayor of Zootopia (J.K. Simmons) is a proud and noble lion that struts about, while his assistant, Bellwether (Jenny Slate), is a put-upon and powerless little sheep. If you can sense some social metaphor and timely political commentary coming around the corner, your senses would be working just fine.
Ginnifer Goodwin gives voice and life and heart to Judy Hopps, a diminutive and impossibly adorable rabbit who has dreamed of becoming a cop since she was a tiny bunny. Against all odds and despite her diminutive size — there’s never been a rabbit cop, ever, as the force is dominated by large predator mammals — Judy graduates at the top of her class at the academy and arrives fresh off the farm at the Zootopia Police Station, ready to make a difference!
And then the crusty water buffalo Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) assigns Judy to meter maid duty and tells her to get cracking writing those parking tickets.
Sigh. Down goes Judy’s ears. She wants to be a real police officer, not a meter maid.
Enter Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is literally a sly fox, a career con man who makes a living via a variety of scams that are borderline illegal. When 14 mammals in Zootopia go missing, Judy has reason to believe Nick could be a key witness in the case — and with the help of Judy’s newfound ally Bellwether, Judy is given 48 hours to crack the case.
So how great is this: In addition to being sweet and funny and brimming with positive messages, “Zootopia” turns into a better buddy-cop movie and thriller than most live-action films of the genre. At first Judy and Nick are constantly bickering, but as they survive harrowing predicaments and get the time to know one another, they …
Well. You know the drill.
There isn’t a scene in “Zootopia” that doesn’t crackle with sharp, multi-level dialogue (corny and sweet jokes for the kids, clever inside humor for the adults) and amazingly detailed and gorgeous visuals. Whether it’s Judy hopping around to write 200 parking tickets in record time, Judy’s pursuit of a sneaky weasel of a bandit that leads her to a miniature city teaming with the smallest of rodents or some fairly dark and scary twists in the plot (“Zootopia” is a legit PG film and should not be seen by the very young), rarely I have seen an animated film with such a vibrant, rich look.
Such brilliant voice work here, from Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Otterton, who is worried to death about her missing husband, to Tommy Chong as Yax, blissed-out proprietor of a den of friendly debauchery, to Alan Tudyk as the sneaky blabbermouth Duke Weaselton to Shakira as Gazelle, a Gaga-esque pop sensation with a social conscience.
Best of all: Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy and Nick. It’s pitch-perfect casting as Bateman smoothly transitions from the ultimate cynic to showing more than just a little bit of heart, while Goodwin’s perpetually upbeat and undeniably pure-hearted Judy becomes even lovable when she makes some rash judgments and has to learn from her mistakes.
The directing team of Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, working with an army of talented animators, have created a dozen memorable and lovable characters and a gorgeous, colorful, complex world. “Zootopia” is brimming with silly, slapstick humor and terrific one-liners — and yes, some simple yet valuable lessons about tolerance and prejudice and learning to embrace our differences.
There’s nothing wrong with a lesson or two when those lessons are packaged within such a great and memorable film.
Disney presents a film directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore and co-directed by Jared Bush and written by Bush and Phil Johnston. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG (for some thematic elements, rude humor, and action). Opens Friday at local theaters.