There's something inherently weird about the "talking animal" genre, especially once it gets seriously anthropomorphic. What if some people in real life were goats and others were alligators? Would you still feel the same way about crime policy and immigration? It raises all sorts of ugly questions, that don't have proper answers — because in real life, people aren't easily labelled as pigs, wolves, geese, or tigers. Art Spiegelman's Maus pushes this weirdness to its limits, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice — but he makes it clear these roles are not intrinsic, by showing one of the mice turning into a cat in one panel.
Minor spoilers ahead...
The "talking animal" story is, in some sense, a fantasy both about being able to identify someone's character at a glance — the wolf is visibly not the same as the three pigs — but also, about people having an essential nature that cannot be changed. (That second aspect of the fantasy also helps explain astrology, personality tests, and a million self-help books that divide people into types.)
But Zootopia takes all of the ugliness and strangeness in the "anthropomorphic animal" world and delves right into it — with a story that deliberately pokes at the heart of the "people are different species" fantasy.
In Zootopia's world, tons of animals are intelligent and can speak. And predators now live in harmony with prey animals (I guess the carnivores eat a lot of tofu.) The official story is that anybody can be anything, and that everyone is the same. But when a little bunny named Judy Hopps decides she wants to be a police officer, she finds that all the much bigger rhino cops and tiger cops don't really take her seriously.
The heart of Zootopia is a classic "buddy cop" story, in which Judy Hopps — who fears and despises foxes — is forced to team up with a fox con artist named Nick Wilde, to unravel a conspiracy. Just as Judy wants to prove that she can be as tough a cop as all the much larger animals, Nick feels like everybody thinks the worst of him just because he's a fox. But the conspiracy they discover strikes at the center of the unresolved question: Can predators and prey live together in peace?
By the end of the film, Zootopia has given the kids plenty of good messages about tolerance and not judging people by appearances, and reinforced that a bunny can indeed be just as good a cop as a ginormous buffalo. But the movie also hints that it's way more complicated than that, and nothing involving people can be simplified down to a bromide. Because people are weird.
There are a lot of moments where Zootopia seems to careen dangerously close to buying into the nastiest aspects of the "what if people were sheep and geese" idea — only to swerve at the last moment. After a while, you start to realise that this movie is fully aware of the pitfalls in its own genre, and is actually playing with them pretty artfully. Those moments when you think the wheels are going to come off the bus turn out to be kind of the point — because this movie is playing with those treacherous areas on purpose.
And the incredible thing about the animation in Zootopia is that it's so expressive that you honestly can't help but identify with these creatures, rather than just thinking they're cute or whatever. They have really complicated inner lives that are conveyed as much through body language and things like ear-position and twitching noses as through dialogue and basic facial expression. This is a "talking animal" movie in which animal physicality is a major storytelling tool.
And meanwhile, the relationship between Judy and Nick becomes the emotional focus of the movie, as they learn to understand each other, but also change each other. The "buddy cop" thing is absolutely a perfect way to shape the Woody-and-Buzz interplay of these characters, but then their friendship really does become kind of epic, and transformative.
There's also a lot of really inventive animal slapstick in this movie:
In the classic "talking animal" story, cuteness is the sugar that makes all sorts of strange medicine go down. As long as everything is adorable — the eyes are big enough, the fur is cuddly enough — these creature-people can embody all sorts of allegories and symbols, that stand in for real humans.
Zootopia uses cuteness, along with a lot of ridiculous sight gags, to reinforce as well as disrupt your expectations of what each creature will "naturally" be like. A lot of the visual humour in Zootopia plays around with the expectations that cuteness creates in us: like, of course the slow workers at the DMV are sloths. But meanwhile, the city's crime boss, Mr. Big, is actually a teeny mouse.
The other thing that's really noteworthy in Zootopia is the world-building, particularly the city itself. As much as the meeting place of different video game worlds was an enchanting concept in Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia gets even more mileage out of the idea of a city that's made out of a set of ecosystems, somehow placed alongside each other in a candy-coloured metropolis. Moving between all these different habitats keeps Zootopia feeling like a surprising, vivid place in which the artificiality of human culture — and the arbitrariness of our ideas about what's "natural" — are constantly being taken apart.
Zootopia isn't quite as brilliant a movie as Inside Out or even Wreck-It Ralph, but it has twists are are just as clever as the ones in those movies. Some of the plot gyrations in Zootopia do a great job of turning things sideways and making you question what you thought you knew. And this is an absolutely heart-felt movie in which a complicated relationship between two creatures that "ought" to be predator and prey becomes something that's both sweet and surprising.
Zootopia may change the way you look at cartoon animals forever — but also might just challenge your ideas about human nature.