Sunday, June 19, 2016

Disney Watch: Zootopia (2015)

I guess my biggest question about this movie is why it's called "Zootopia (2015)" to begin with when the name of the city in question is "Zootropolis".   Further confusing the point, I think that in England the movie was released as "Zootropolis", but I'll let someone from across the pond confirm or deny that notion.

We're a number of years on from Disney's Home on the Range, the worst Disney film I can remember ever seeing, and the one that threw the future of Disney animation into question.  No, there's no glorious return to 2D hand-drawn animation, and I suspect we've seen the last of that artform on the big screen from any major studio.  That's okay.  Walt would have wanted innovation and character.  And gags.  And, Zootopia delivers on all fronts.

What's different now is that, I think, you can feel the impact of John Lasseter's influence spread from Pixar to Disney, and not just in animation technique.  He's as much Disney as Pixar these days, and I can only think it's helped put Disney on a better track, and the sensibility of story coming first now lives at Disney as well as their cousins in San Francisco.

If you think back to the arrival of Toy Story in 1995, what surprised audiences wasn't just the nifty use of 3D animation, but the fully-fleshed out story worthy of a truly all-ages movie.  The movie featured real characters with characteristics and flaws, who were driven by motivations that went beyond two-dimensional childrens' books stereotypes.  Pixar has made this kind of story-telling their hallmark, dropping the ball only occasionally, and more than occasionally telling compelling stories that bridge generations, like Wall-E, The Incredibles, and many more.

That story-telling technique has made it's way over to Disney, who had found a sort of Broadway musical-formula-driven story-telling mode with The Little Mermaid and found success with several movies that way, but then we started getting into Pocahontas and Treasure Planet and the wheels seemed to come off.

But with Frozen, a happily deconstructionist princess story, Disney seems to have found a brand new bag.  Now, with Zootopia - not a musical! - instead we get a sort of crime procedural that delves into themes of racism and other-ness in a metaphorical way that's usually reserved for science-fiction analogs like Alien Nation or District 9.

In short - Judy Hopps is a bunny who comes from the idyllic countryside as the first rabbit police officer in the megalopolis of Zootropolis, a place where animals live side-by-side, living and working together in seeming harmony.  Zootropolis is still a relatively new concept in this world of no-humans, but animals wearing clothes, working as baristas and bankers - and there's some long-distant memory of when animals were just animals and hunted and killed each other, but that was long ago.  Now they commute together and share all the joys and burdens of a large, melting pot city with ethnic districts replaced by "Savannah" or "Polar" or "Rainforest" regions.

Still, they know lions once ate sheep and it's remarkable that something as small and defenseless as a rabbit is joining the police force.

Judy quickly learns that some "predators" have been disappearing and it leads to a discovery that those who disappeared had gone feral again, causing a panic in the 90% of the population that knows it was once prey.

In general, I really liked the film, in particular the characterization of the two leads.  Judy Hopps is our idealist, the kid from the country who believes in the dream of Zootropolis and wants to be a part of it so much she makes it through police training to become the first rabbit officer (most cops are large land mammals or predators, from Elephants to Cheetahs).  Nick Wilde is a fox, someone who is well aware of the underlying tensions of the city, and he's more than a little cynical of the promise of Zootropolis.  A street hustler, he's not above taking advantage of the best intentions of others to make a buck.

The movie plays fast and loose with stereotypes, from a doughnut-loving cop (a cheetah who maybe could drop a pound or two before breaking any landspeed records) to a Mr. Big who is a Godfather knock-off.  And, there are plenty of animal gags, both in sight gags (I loved the hippo and hamster commuters) and species specific bits (the wolves all howling).  And, of course, the mind-bending sloth bit.

And just plain throw-away gags like Shakira as a pop-star gazelle everyone is secretly infatuated with.

The analogies run thick and deep and it's a movie that's kind of shockingly realistic about our inner-xenophobe, how what we say matters, and maybe a little cynical about the paranoia that's running under a society that's outwardly all about togetherness.  It serves up what I assume if a message not embraced by Trump supporters with cute animals and funny jokes, and one wonders how or if the core message of the film was or was not discussed in certain quarters.

It's some kind of edgy material when you think back that Pocahontas rewrote history so brazenly that Disney abandoned all historical accuracy in order to tell a happy myth instead of acknowledging any of the reality of what really occurred (I remember going home and opening up my World Book Encyclopedia after watching the movie the first time as I spent the whole time thinking "none of this sounds right...").  But I dunno.  I also figure it's a sort of universal message in the 21st Century, and one that should be the moral platform we agree on in a pluralistic society.  Might as well start the kids young on the idea that they're living in a world more complex than the one sold them in their cartoons and TV shows depicting frictionless harmony.

All in all, I really liked it.  Maybe not in the "well, this is the new gold standard" way I liked Frozen, but it's absolutely one I'll watch again.  I'd tuck it in there with how much I liked Big Hero 6.  And, it holds up as well or better than any other cop movie I've seen in years, so there's that.  It's just a solid movie on all fronts, and I'd like to watch it on something larger than the post-card screen on the back of an airline seat.

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