Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 25, 2016

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2016) Part 1

54. Zootopia

At first, no one seemed that excited for “Zootopia.” Most people judged the initial trailers as overly snarky, smug, and not that funny. Some made cracks about the characters designs, such as the overly sexualized gazelle. This led to many jokes about the furry fandom. There wasn’t much hype or excitement for the film. Maybe Disney knew what they were doing. “Zootopia” opened to positive reviews, many reviewers surprised by how funny and perceptive the final film is. Continuing the studio’s post-“Frozen” streak of success, “Zootopia” has also been a hit at the box office, breaking records in several territories. As someone who has enjoyed every Disney Animated Feature since John Lasseter took over the animation wing, my expectations were measured but positive for “Zootopia.” Yep, I liked this one too.

Judy Hopps is a rabbit. Like most rabbits, her parents are simple carrot farmers, living in the countryside. Yet Judy has different plans for her life. She wants to become a police officer, helping patrol and protect the citizens of Zootopia, a modern metropolis for animals. Working hard to become the top of her class, Judy achieves that dream. Upon arriving in Zootopia, things are harder then she expected. Being a bunny in a police department populated by large mammals and predators, she faces discrimination. Despite being forced to do grunt-work, Judy uncovers an unusual conspiracy to play the different social classes in Zootopia against each other. During her journey, she encounters Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist, and develops an unexpected partnership with him.

Reportedly, the eureka moment during “Zootopia’s” development was the premise of animals inhabiting a world designed by and for animals. The titular city of the film is an impressive creation. As Judy rolls into Zootopia on a train, we’re introduced to each sector of the city, made for different animals. There’s a frozen tundra for arctic creatures, a desert area for warm-climate animals, and a rain forest section for species adapted for that environment. Most clever is how the film handles animals of different size. The train has a domed, tall section for giraffes. One part of Zootopia is designed for smaller creatures, such as rodents. While still resembling a modern city as we know it, “Zootopia” invents a funny, clever creation that isn’t entirely like anything we’ve seen before.

Another likable element of “Zootopia” is how it plays within a pre-established genre. “Zootopia” is a buddy cop movie of sorts. As in “48 Hrs.” and many films before, “Zootopia” pairs a by-the-book cop up with a rascally, street-smart quasi-crook. At first, Judy and Nick actively dislike each other. The fox does his best to undermine the rabbit’s mission, back-biting against their perceived partnership. Likewise, Judy frequently, happily calls Nick on his bullshit. However, a mutual respect forms between the two disparate individuals. By the story’s end, Nick and Judy are friends. There’s enough tension between them to suggest a romantic connection, even. Considering there’s never been much of a difference between a romance and the buddy genre, that’s a natural extension. Judy and Nick hate each other, work together, start to like each other, have their struggles, but are inseparable by the end.

“Zootopia” also functions as a surprisingly compelling mystery. At the film’s beginning, Judy has been assigned to traffic duty, slapping parking tickets on cars. However, she soon uncovers a lead in the story’s central mystery. Citizens of Zootopia have been disappearing throughout the city. The only connection between the victims are that they are all meat-eating predators. “Zootopia” does a decent job of disguising its plot points, the audience realizing discoveries at the same time as characters. The eventual circumstances of the mystery – which involve peaceful Zootopians reverting back to their animistic, savage behavior – also pushes this kids movie into some surprisingly intense areas. The last act, which involves illegal chemistry and government corruption, reveals “Zootopia” as a fuzzy, kid-friendly variation on the noir genre. It’s all funny, interesting stuff.

2016 is still fairly young but Judy Hopps is likely to be one of my favorite protagonists of the year. The early scenes establishes Judy’s indomitable drive towards her goals. Her parents, her teachers, and the class room bully all tell her that a rabbit can’t be a cop. But being told she can’t do something just makes Judy work harder to realize that dream. Yet she doesn’t lack doubts. After moving into the city, she finds herself living in a tiny apartment. Before the film concludes, her struggles and self-doubts rear her head. Even Judy wonders if her dream is possible, if she can reach the lofty goals she has set for herself. Ginnifer Goodwin’s voice work is clear, funny, personable, and eccentric.

The second half of the duo is Nick Wilde. Wilde is essentially a con man, making his living performing hustles that straddle the line of legality. His introduction scene has him turning one elephant sized ice pop – which he pointedly did not pay for – into a hundred lemming-sized ice pops. He then turns around and sells the popsicle sticks as timber to a mouse-sized lumber yard. At first, the fox and the rabbit seem on opposite sides of the same systems. While Judy has worked hard for everything she has, Nick is happy to swindle people out of their cash. Yet the fox has an honor system all his own. Better yet, the two compliment each other. Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as the sly canine, his immediately recognizable voice and good-natured sarcasm being an ideal match for the part. 

“Zootopia” has a colorful and memorable supporting cast. Idris Elba brings his exotic but authoritative voice to Chief Bogo, the water buffalo police chief that bosses Judy and her colleagues around. Nate Torrence plays Clawhauser, the dispatcher. Despite being a cheetah, Clawhauser is rotund, due to his fondness for donuts. He’s also effeminate and flamboyant, qualities Torrence has a lot of fun inhabiting. J. K. Simmons' unmistakably growl fits the mayor of Zootopia, a lion. Though a small part, Simmons brings some humor and character to the role. The same can’t be said of Octavia Spencer, a name actress wasted in a bit part as the missing otter’s concerned wife. Tiny Lister, Tommy Chong, and Shakira have cameos playing off their established pop culture personas but these are amusing gags.

Speaking of amusing gags! “Zootopia” is really funny. There are a number of fantastically orchestrated jokes. Easily, the comedic high-light of the film is Judy pursuing a suspect through the smallest part of Zootopia. Watching the bigger animals careen or gently pass through the tiny community produces some fine sight gags. A reveal concerning Nick’s partner-in-crime – who at first appears to be an adorable Fennic fox with an elephant obsession – gets a decent laugh. As does two very different police officers playing around with a pop-star featuring phone app. Another sequence is built around a “naturalistic” yoga club, featuring animals shedding their human-like clothing. There’s an extended joke that is successfully built upon, adding to the absurdity. As a dog owner, a sequence devoted to dogs loosing themselves to howling made me laugh. Quick and amusing sight gags include references to Disney’s recent and upcoming films and an unexpected shout-out to “Breaking Bad,” of all things. Prominently featured in nearly all the trailers is the DMV being run by typically slow sloths. This is a good example of how “Zootopia” caters its world to specific animal features. Despite being heavily featured in the marketing, the jokes still manage to be amusing.

Surprisingly, “Zootopia” isn’t just funny. The film works pretty well as an action movie. The aforementioned chase through the rodent district is as thrilling as it is chuckle-inducing, Judy avoiding several close calls. A chase through the tree tops of the rain forest area generates some effective tension, the heroes dangling for their lives over the jungle canapés. The story climaxes in the subways of the city, the heroes avoiding enemies in the tight confines of a train car. There’s way more screeching breaks and shattered glass then you’d foresee in a kid’s flick. Naturally, it’s all gorgeously animated too. One thing Disney’s most prominent rival – Dreamworks – does really well is combining action and comedy. I’d never expect the Mouse Factory to take something from Dreamworks but, in this case, it was a wise decision.

The element of “Zootopia” that has received the most attention is its not-particularly subtle subtext about prejudice and racism. When Judy comes to Zootopia, she is discriminated against for being a bunny. Despite this, Judy has her own prejudice, which she doesn’t even realize. She makes snap judgements about Nick and the other predators she meets. Some of these are built into her by her parents, others are her own fault. Later in the film, her poor choice of words during a press conference inspires a wave of prejudice throughout the city, enacting mass exclusion and persecution of predators. The villains' plot uses hate and prejudice to further their own goals, pushing the city apart to make themselves more powerful. Reading too much into “Zootopia” probably isn’t recommended. The main characters being cops is probably an unintended parallel with recent events. “Zootopia’ is more simple then that. That doesn’t make its central message – that prejudice pushes us apart as a culture – any less vital.

Not every element of “Zootopia” works seamlessly. A subplot involving the animal underworld, featuring a mob boss that is a vole, retreads some easy jokes about mafia stereotypes. Considering “Zootopia” is coming out against prejudice, using common cultural clichés like this doesn’t help the film. While the mystery in “Zootopia” is compelling for most of its run time, eventually the audience figures things out before the characters do. A reveal, concerning a type of flower, really comes out of nowhere. The climax features the protagonists making some last minute switches that strain credibility for me.

So the script isn’t perfect. However, “Zootopia” has lots of laughs, great lead characters, some thrills, a few surprises, great animation, and a timely moral. Where it falls in Disney’s recent history is harder to guess. The script is less routine then “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Big Hero 6” but the premise isn’t as inventive or heart-felt as either of those films. Still, when a movie’s good, it’s good. I’m happy to see “Zootopia” has connected with audiences, meaning “Frozen”-style princess stories aren’t the only cartoons Disney will be making for the foreseeable future. The variety, quirk, and pure amusement factor “Zootopia” brings to the table can only mean more good stuff in the future. [Grade: B+]

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