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Archive for March, 2016

Quick Thoughts on “Zootopia”

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Having seen the movie twice, I have a few things to say about Disney’s Zootopia. These are general thoughts, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers. (For the record, I’d recommend everyone see the movie at least once.)

– I don’t think any recent Disney animated feature has left me as cold as Zootopia did. It is probably the most mechanical, by-the-numbers approach to a premise that—as witnessed in its few truly inventive sequences—could have been much more entertaining, and ultimately could have gotten its message across in a more nuanced manner than in its ham-fisted handling in the actual film.

Zootopia wants to do two things: 1) create a funny world of anthropomorphic animals that’s essentially a mirror for modern day society, much like Futurama created a futuristic world to reflect and satirize the present day; and 2) present a serious tale about overcoming bias and stereotypes in order to live in harmony. These two goals are not compatible, at least not under the sanctimonious gaze of Disney and John “Grandpa” Lasseter. After all, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? To admit how stupid the basic premise is—and it’s pretty stupid—would severely undermine the anti-profiling message, which the film wants us to take very seriously.

– But it’s clear that, while making the movie, the creators just couldn’t resist the occasional wisecrack or high-octave silliness made possible by the premise. Not only are those little occasions the best part of the movie, they get to the heart of the prejudice issue better than the scenes that literally deal with the prejudice issue (in those instances, and there are a few of them, the movie stops dead, and you’re not sure whether you want to leave the theater or watch it burn down). Watching the protagonist, Judy Hopps, overachieve as a meter maid or chasing down a thief is a lot of fun because we’re allowed to laugh at the absurdity of it all and cheer on our optimistic hero against these crazy odds (i.e. as the first bunny police officer, her tiny size compared to her huge colleagues is just one of a few handicaps she must overcome). On the other hand, her childhood confrontation with a bullying fox and the montage of her training days, while interspersed with gags, only function to aggrandize our hero and her wonderful qualities that we should emulate. These scenes are obvious, painful, and manipulative, and clearly meant to give our hero’s character arc some gravitas.

– I mentioned Futurama earlier, and Zootopia, at its best, captures the madcap stupid-smart sense of humor of that series and similar works (in fact, one of Futurama’s original directors, Rich Moore of The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph, is one of the three directors of Zootopia). Had they pushed that angle to the foreground and stuck with it, Zootopia would probably be one of the funniest animated features ever made. Unfortunately, not only were the creators too ambitious—hence the anti-bias message—but they tried to please everyone, fitting in jokes that, while cute, make little sense in context (at one point, “Everybody Hurts” plays on a radio, and it’s not even a cute animal version, it’s the actual song), outdated parodies (Shark Tale already beat the Godfather jokes to a pulp twelve years ago, and even that was outdated), heartwarming moments between Judy and Nick Wilde, a criminal fox turned partner-in-crime, and, most idiotically, a scientific explanation for how the animals came to be civilized.

– This last point is a key component to the movie’s (oddly effective) mystery plot, so I’ll refrain from spoiling anything if you haven’t seen Zootopia. I will, however, observe that, for a universe founded on the idea that animals were once savage, but evolved past their brutish ways to live in harmony, there is not one single mention of religion. I don’t know whether to applaud or condemn the movie for this blatant omission, especially since it’s a such great missed opportunity for a “lamb of God” joke. (Given the corporate, committee-approved feel of the movie, I have no doubt that, even if such a joke was tossed around a lot during production, it was systematically whimpered out of the final cut to avoid offended Middle American God-fearers.)

– The closest thing to a religious maxim in the film is the central motto of Zootopia: “Where anyone can be anything!”Judy believes this with all her heart, and it inspires her to want to become a police officer. Naturally, this is met with skepticism by everyone, including her parents, her town, and everyone on the police service. The problem with this conflict is that they make it all about Judy being a bunny and not about her being incompetent, a problem which could have been alleviated by having at least one or two other smaller animals in subordinate positions at the station (imagine: a Spalax in charge of surveillance!). We all know Judy will get respect and a promotion in the end, so why make the journey getting there so bloodless and boring?

– Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll say that the mystery plot is actually really intriguing for the entire second act of the movie. It’s resolution, unfortunately, is kind of dumb, and really disappointing. Let’s put it this way: had the movie gone the direction I thought the movie was going in with the mystery, I’d agree with Peter Travers that Zootopia had “balls.” Sorry, Travers, but this movie is as lacking in any discernable genitalia as its animal characters.

– Speaking of genitalia, there is an extended scene revolving around a group of animals who call themselves “naturalists,” meaning they don’t wear clothes. This being a typical cartoon, the animals have no visual genitals, so their nakedness is not offensive to the audience, but in-universe, it’s an affront to poor little Judy’s innocence seeing an animal with no clothes on. Bonus points for the scene taking place in a yoga lounge, so the many suggestive positions the “naked” animals take is the main source of hilarity. If only this was in a smarter movie.

– I take that back. If anything, the movie is too smart and too self-aware. This is the most self-referential Disney film in a few years. At one point, Judy’s boss tells her that life is not some animated musical where all your dreams come true. (And then he ends that thought with three words that I won’t reveal; rest assured, I nearly walked out of the theater.)

– And it’s not just Disney movies being referenced: nearby every clichéd animal character ever designed finds its way into Zootopia, from mice out of a Don Bluth movie to a weasel straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon.

– The weasel (named Duke Weselton, and voiced by Alan Tudyk, aka Disney Animation’s John Ratzenburger) is probably my favorite character in the movie, which is saying something, because I’m usually the biggest Jason Bateman fan, but Nick Wilde comes in second.

– All the vocal performances are great—as per usual for Disney—but I have a minor nerdy nitpick. Good as Ginnifer Goodwin is as Judy (and she’s marvelous), I couldn’t help but feel that she and Amy Poehler had been cast in the wrong movies. Goodwin should have been the ever-optimistic Joy in Inside Out, and Poehler should have been the ever-optimistic Judy in Zootopia. I can imagine Poehler and Jason Bateman be able to trade even sharper jabs at each other. Actually, I have a major nerdy nitpick: why didn’t Kath Soucie (who voices the young Nick Wilde) voice Judy?! Would the forged continuity from Soucie’s Lola Bunny in Space Jam to Judy in Zootopia be too meta for a generation raised on cartoons?

Oh, and that Shakira song sucks.