Zootopia Review: Adorable Animals and a Tale of Tolerance at El Capitan

If you have a child in your household, chances are Disney's animated romp Zootopia is on your must-see list. What kid can resist a movie about adorable, anthropomorphized animals? The good news for grown-ups is that these creatures, cute and cuddly as they are, are never cloying, and neither is the movie. Zootopia is a fast-paced and funny (or is that furry?) tale of tolerance—a buddy detective story that touches on timely societal issues and champions our ability to evolve and get along, regardless of what kind of mammals we are.

Not that young kids will care about most of that. They'll be too busy laughing at the adventures of Judy Hopps, the cosmopolitan city of Zootopia's first-ever bunny cop (voiced with perpetual optimism by Ginnifer Goodwin). Fate throws her together with Nick Wilde (the wonderful Jason Bateman), a fox con man who helps her crack the case of the missing predators. Although they dislike each other at first, they inevitably bond. These two have much more in common than they initially realize, including fighting against being stereotyped and childhoods scarred by taunting.

Those bullying flashbacks, especially Nick's, are two of the scariest scenes in the film, which is rated PG with good reason. Worried your preschooler might not be up for it? Here's what you need to know before you book tickets (or a babysitter), and what treats await if you splurge on seeing it at El Capitan.

The mystery at the center of Zootopia is just an excuse to see the denizens of the metropolis in action. They're all recognizable human archetypes translated into animal form, like Idris Elba’s gruff water buffalo Police Chief Bogo, J.K. Simmons' pompous Mayor Lionheart, Alan Tudyk's lowlife Duke Weaselton, Shakira's sexy pop star Gazelle, and Tommy Chong's hippie Yax, who runs a nudist retreat. Even though much ado is made about the frolickers being naked, no animated genitalia is on display, though little ones are sure to giggle at this naughty bit.

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Shakira plays a crooning gazelle with a top hit, Try Everything, in the animated flick that attracted a number of top actors and performers.

The characters act like people, so the interactions should be easy for little kids to grasp, even if they lose the thread of the story. Judy and Nick are instantly lovable, with their big eyes and hearts, which means their scenes as bullied youngsters might be frightening for preschoolers. Nick's is especially traumatic, because he ends up in a muzzle that looks like something Hannibal Lecter might wear. In contrast, Judy's incident features a few scratches from a fox classmate unrelated to Nick, but the source of her distrust of the species. She makes up with him as an adult, which provides closure as well as an important plot advancement.

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The indefatigable Judy Hopps, the city's first rabbit cop, stars in Zootopia, trying to crack open a case of animals gone rogue.

While there are plenty of action sequences, including a thrilling train chase, the scariest bits have to do with predators acting like, well, predators. In Zootopia, predators and prey live side by side, if not in harmony then in tolerance. Without giving too much away, it's important to know their peaceful society is coming undone because tamed predators suddenly seem to be "giving in" to their nature, gnashing their teeth, flashing their claws and pouncing. More than once, Judy and Nick are forced to flee out-of-control animals who, just moments earlier, seemed docile. There's a panther attack that's particularly intense. Sensitive tots might find these scenes confusing and, possibly, upsetting.

For parents, there is a wealth of clever pop-culture riffs, from The Godfather to Breaking Bad, and the scene at the DMV is uproarious (unless you have to renew your license soon). There were definitely moments when my 10-year-old asked, "What are you laughing at?" because references went over her head, proving the film is as much for adults as kids.

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The city of Zootopia looks pretty from above, but fighting has broken out below among fearful residents.

Although there's nothing inappropriate for wee ones, I'd say Zootopia is best appreciated by ages 6 and older, as some of the animal attack scenes are likely to distress anyone younger. It's worth knowing that the film opens with what appears to be a pretty ferocious predator attack, before we're let off the hook by a switcheroo. And, by the way, there's no bonus scene at the end, so no need to stay through the credits as we did (and always do ever since the shawarma bit in The Avengers).

Elements of Zootopia are reminiscent of other films. The whole "can predators and prey live in harmony" question was explored in the inferior Madagascar. I even thought of X-Men in terms of how mutants, here animals, are misunderstood and feared. But in the end, Zootopia is an original that inspires smiles and some pretty serious discussions about the importance of fighting against prejudice.

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Lola the Sloth gets her close-up

El Capitan's preshow for this film includes a stage presentation by one of the film's collaborators, the Wildlife Learning Center. An animal wrangler brings out real life examples of some of the cutest critters from the film: a bunny, a fox, and a sloth so popular she's been on the Ellen Show. Kids get to learn a little bit about each, including which ones make good pets, and which ones don't (guess which category the sloth falls into). After the real animals have returned to their dens, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde take to the stage in character form, playing the crowd and boogying down a bit. These two also put in appearances at character breakfasts on certain days during the run.

As usual, the lobby includes some fun photo ops, and the downstairs area offers some deeper insights into the making of the film—in this case original sketches by the animators and some of the research that went into how the animals move. El Capitan always offers ways to make a movie a more educational experience.

Note that the theater's live organ music preshow is only offered on weekends for this film.

Zootopia plays through April 10 at Disney's El Capitan and is rated PG. See the trailer below.

All photos courtesy of Disney.