Using animals to tell kid-friendly stories that dispense important life lessons is a practice as old as Aesop. But with “Zootopia,” a thoroughly engaging new film from Walt Disney Animation — a studio that knows a thing or two about cuddly, anthropomorphic critters — this familiar narrative approach gets a jolt of new, culturally relevant life. The idea that a cartoon starring an adorable bunny, a slippery fox and a shrew that does a halfway decent Marlon Brando impression might have something meaningful to say about race relations, especially in #BlackLivesMatter America, sounds pretty ridiculous.
But it’s true.
The determined rabbit-protagonist of “Zootopia” is Judy Hopps (enthusiastically voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin of “Once Upon a Time”). Having longed to be a police officer, Judy finally gets the chance, thanks to a “mammal-inclusion effort” focused on recruiting cops of diverse backgrounds. After she is assigned to the downtown precinct in Zootopia, a vibrantly realized metropolis whose neighborhoods range from the miniaturized Little Rodentia to the lush Rainforest District, Judy shows up for work bright-eyed, quite literally bushy-tailed and ready to start upholding the law. But when she’s stuck in a demoralizing stint issuing parking tickets, she realizes that being an officer is going to be more messy than imagined. Among other things, she’ll have to overcome unfair preconceptions about her abilities, forge a tentative partnership with that untrustworthy fox (voiced, with perfect slyness, by Jason Bateman) and investigate a missing-otter case that uncovers the institutional biases and political corruption lurking beneath Zootopia’s surface.
The genius of “Zootopia” is that it works on two levels: It’s a timely and clever examination of the prejudices endemic to society, and also an entertaining, funny adventure about furry creatures engaged in solving a mystery. The adults in the audience may see connections between Judy’s initial belief that predators are genetically designed to turn savage and the misguided assumptions some human cops make in real life. Younger audience members, on the other hand, will be busy giggling and gawking at the rich, colorful animalscape that directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, along with their co-director Jared Bush, have brought to the screen.
From the flotilla of tiny financial experts who stream out of Lemming Brothers Bank to the eye-popping train ride through the terrains of Zootopia to that mob-boss shrew (who looks and sounds a lot like the title character in “The Godfather”), there’s an attention to inspired detail here that’s very much in keeping with the standards set by Disney and its cousin, Pixar. Some of the set pieces — most notably a visit to a DMV staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths — are as hilarious and deftly paced as anything you might find in a live-action comedy.
In short, “Zootopia” is the best animated film of the year, as well as one that conveys a message rarely heard in movies for children: Getting exactly what you hoped for isn’t the end of the journey. It’s just the beginning of the hard work of becoming the best, most open-minded bunny you can be.
PG. At area theaters. Contains rude humor, action and some mature thematic elements. 109 minutes.