Because fans should be critical, too

Quick Thoughts on “Zootopia”

zootopia-movie-trailer-poster-2016-disney

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.

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10 responses

  1. ItalianBaptist

    Reading your review I’m getting some serious Chicken Little vibes…thoughts?

    March 12, 2016 at 8:26 am

    • It’s nowhere near being as bad as Chicken Little, so don’t worry about that (design-wise, the comparison is inevitable, but Zootopia is much more thought-out and funnier than Disney’s first fully CGI-animated film).

      I just watched Zootopia again yesterday for the third time (and in 3D!) as a double feature with Kung Fu Panda 3. In terms of a coherent sensibility and a solid moral, Kung Fu Panda 3 is the better film. However, Zootopia is the more entertaining of the two, despite its wonky, yet well-intended message and tonal incongruity. Isn’t it funny how Zootopia is Disney at its most DreamsWorks-esque and Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon are DreamWorks at their most Disney-esque? (Not my observation, by the way, and if I can recover the source, I’ll post it.)

      March 15, 2016 at 10:16 am

  2. Rosemont

    At first I was attracted to this film because it was a Disney flick with a female protagonist who wasn’t a lovesick princess. Yet the film is sadly filled with numerous false equivalences.

    The part about Judy’s past was especially frustrating because the film never really follows up on it in a meaningful way. At one point Nick tries to test her prejudice against foxes which prompts her to take out her fox repellent. Yet she has to apologize to him while he never has to apologize for possibly reopening an old wound (one that should have left her scarred and not just physically). Imagine if a woman who was assaulted (sexually or otherwise) in the past was tested in the same way Judy was and then made to apologize for being prejudiced against all men, wouldn’t that just be disgusting? The third act twists and Duke Weselton references are getting old as well.

    By the way, have you heard about Mamoru Hosoda, who’s been endlessly (and undeservedly) paraded by Western critics as being the “next Miyazaki?” His newest film “The Boy and the Beast” came out last year in theaters and last month on KissAnime, and it’s got an even greater “corporate, committee-approved feel,” than Zootopia, only without even the slightest pretense of progressiveness.

    April 8, 2016 at 9:57 am

    • tox

      I’ve only heard bad things about “The Boy and the Beast,” but I distinctly remember being impressed by Wolf Children. Even if the last act was kind of bad. This was a few years ago so I only remember my reaction, not why I felt that way. Even Summer Wars (whose cold, lifeless romance would fit the description of “corporate, committee-approved”) had some extremely strong family moments that (in my eyes) come off as much stronger than your generic Disney fare.

      Did you dislike Wolf Children and the stuff before as well? Or is it just this work?

      April 27, 2016 at 4:22 am

      • Rosemont

        I did like Wolf Children at the beginning but didn’t like the ending that much or its questionable gender politics (such as the tomboy girl wolf child being written into a repressed, conformist girly girl while the boy gets to be free). However, I’ve always adored his Digimon movies, but those ones had a better scriptwriter than the one he had for Summer Wars.
        In any case, it’s good to hear from Marshall again as I’ve missed his insightful reviews that don’t always repeat whatever most critics say about a given film (good or bad).

        May 3, 2016 at 10:39 am

  3. Ian

    Still love your work Marshall, keep up the great work and i hope your personal life is going well 🙂

    April 30, 2016 at 11:25 pm

  4. ItalianBaptist

    Okay so I finally got to watch Zootopia, once in theaters and once on Blu-Ray. I have a couple comments.

    Though I’m not sure a compare and contrast to Frozen is necessary, it’s pretty inevitable considering the two came out so close to one another, and this movie is much tighter in the writing department. No major plot holes that plague the rest of the movie like the first part of Frozen. They even pulled off the surprising villain reveal better than Frozen by making the small mistake that reveals everything pretty believable.

    I agree that the movie is much better when it’s focusing on its mystery story or on meta humor as opposed to bludgeoning the audience with its moral. There’s not even anything wrong with when they do the moral right – e.g. Judy overcoming obstacles in the academy and even using her small size to her advantage, but there were definitely times where it got heavy handed and sometimes it could even be self-defeating (the sloths at the dmv, though ironic, should not have been in charge of processing stuff like that, which Nick even points out).

    June 16, 2016 at 9:45 am

  5. Ian

    I thought I would let you know Marshall that Jack DeSanna has been making comedy sketches on his Youtube Channel: Chris and Jack. He’s REALLY funny in them and the comedy comes from the situations rather than just telling jokes. Perhaps this style of comedy will be more your style after your dislike of Sokkas comedy in Avatar. They even got Dante Basco to be in one of their videos so it was a treat in it of itself just to see the two working with each other again.

    Have a great day!

    August 8, 2016 at 10:29 pm

  6. Rosemont

    A bit unrelated, but a little known Disney show named Wander over Yonder has just ended after its second season due to executive meddling. It’s supposed to be a kind of cross between Star Wars & The Looney Tunes, and despite being made by the man behind The Powerpuff Girls and Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends, it never became as popular as Steven Universe or Adventure Time. There has been some interesting discussion surrounding it lately on Tumblr, TV Tropes Forums, and The Mary Sue, about everything from its attempted break from the traditional cartoon’s episodic structure in favor of serialized storytelling (revolving around a “Strong Female Character ™” of a new villain) to the fan campaign to get it back on air a la Kim Possible. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it one day.

    August 22, 2016 at 10:24 am

  7. Jake

    As social commentary, Zootopia is bizarre. It can’t make up its mind as to whether animals of different species are fated to reenact their own biology, or free to choose the life they want. The film hops back and forth between these two conclusions before landing eventually (and unconvincingly) on self-determination. But that moral conclusion rings hollow, because it follows 2 hours of jokes centered on the idea that animal species (and by extension, groups of human society) are essentially distinct, possessing unique group-based traits.

    The scene at the sloth DMV is a perfect example: the sloths are unable to escape their natural “slothiness.” And it’s supposed to be funny! Imagine the hypothetical human counterpart: a scene at a human DMV staffed entirely by a specific minority group (say, Black women), who act as stereotypical as possible (i.e., bitchy, sassy, etc). That scene would be disgusting, and racist, and deplorable in every sense of the term. Zootopia wants us to ignore this implication (“Oh come on, they’re just animals!”), while also trying to tack on a message of acceptance and diversity (“They’re animals, just like us!”) despite them repeatedly poisoning the well throughout the film.

    December 21, 2016 at 1:30 am

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