Friday, March 4, 2016
'Zootopia'... A New *Ahem* Zoo Phase Disney Animated Movie
A Disney animated film that is pretty much "keep moving forward" in movie form... You're looking at it right here.
This is probably the future of Disney Animation...
This is going to sound like absolute hyperbole, but here it goes...
Zootopia is the greatest film made by Walt Disney Animation Studios, post-Walt.
Forget what you might think of it now if you haven't seen it... The marketing for this event sold you a completely different movie. They sold you a loud and aggressively hip comedy, it is anything but. This review is full of spoilers, so stop what you're doing and go see the movie if you haven't!
It not only has a ridiculously creative and well thought out premise, it also has a story that takes some risks and does its setting complete justice. It channels Walt far more than most recent Disney animated films, some of Pixar's too! It's a movie that does not screw around, all the while being a wholesomely entertaining package for the whole family.
Disney Animation reached a new peak.
That's not a slam on what Walt Disney Animation Studios has done since Walt's passing in 1966. The Renaissance era had a few real high points, though to be honest, most of the Renaissance pictures were pretty safe in terms of content and storytelling. I think out of all those films, only The Hunchback of Notre Dame dared to be a little more gutsy. Lilo & Stitch, a rare island in a sea of butchered Disney animated films that made up the early 2000s, was also a bit on the risky side. Ever since Michael Eisner left the company over a decade ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios has made strings of well-made pictures, some of them were really great even!
Zootopia is the current team's highest point.
The picture has a rock-solid story that changes and gets wilder as it progresses, twisting and turning every step of the way! But those twists and surprises would be mere gimmicks had we not had great characters and a world that felt very lived in and real. Zootopia itself is a perfect vehicle for the medium, a city set in a world where there were no humans, only animals that evolved into human-like beings. Robin Hood with a lot of fleshing out, basically... And their evolution is explored! It becomes part of the film's core.
When it begins, your casual moviegoer would be under the assumption that the film is going to be a run-of-the-mill "kids movie" with cute animals and bright, colorful visuals. The film opens on the farmlands where our main character Judy Hopps comes from. Her dreams of being a police officer are pretty much disapproved of, from her family to town bullies. The world-building is already laid out in the opening seconds of the film, simply telling you in a few sentences how the present in the world of Zootopia (can we get a name of the planet this is set on? Is it an alternate Earth?) is. No need for more chattering on that, you get it.
In the first few minutes alone, this movie is off on the right foot. The prejudices between predator and prey, a very creative mirror to real-world prejudices, are explicitly shown without preaching. The film's country fair-set opening pits Judy against fox bully Gideon Grey, who steals fair tickets from her bunny friends. Judy tries to fight him for it, he physically hurts her, leaving scars on her face. Right from there, you know this movie isn't going to tip-toe around its ideas. We also learn right away that the prejudice sometimes goes both ways.
Up until Judy takes the train to the titular city, it's a little ho-hum, but later on that tone serves as a nice contrast to everything that follows. Judy's first day on the force is quite disappointing, as she's relegated to meter maid. She does what she can to make it in a rough-and-tumble city that seemingly is a place where dreams go to die, no doubt knocking her optimism down at times. She's instantly likable like any great Disney character, and when we're introduced to the shady Nick Wilde, we immediately love him too! His fennec fox partner Finnick is also a hoot, even if he's not in the movie for too long.
Making for an excellent pair, the adventure kicks off the minute Judy offers to find a missing mammal and gets the job thanks to the Mayor's woolly assistant... One of many, actually! Wilde is Hopps' ticket to cracking the clues, as he was key witness. How Hopps gets Wilde to join is quite clever, too. Initially Wilde is very reluctant and is pretty much a jerk, while Judy stays positive, doing whatever she can to find information. Soon, this lands them in places like a nudist club and then the middle of Zootopia's mob, which goes from mysterious to hilarious.
Things start to crank up once we get to the dark and foreboding Rainforest District, where we get a real taste of what's going on and word of the "Night Howlers", wolves that are a force to be reckoned with. The absent otter, Mr. Otterton, is actually Mr. Big's florist... He even has his own Tundra Town limo! So we learn that he actually attacked his jaguar chauffeur Manchas! Predatory animals are de-evolving and are on the attack! Whoa! Now it's not really a 48 hours detective story anymore, we're now in the middle of a big, elaborate conspiracy!
Changing direction seamlessly once again, Zootopia starts to wear some Walt-era bite when Manchas himself goes wild and gives chase to the duo. It, and a few other scenes like it, might not be Pinocchio or Bambi intense, but it's still pretty impressive. I will say this before moving on, this film fully deserves the PG rating, I think.
Now amidst all this chaos and commotion, we get a much-needed quieter moment on a gondola where we learn that Nick didn't have such a great childhood. In this world, foxes are stigmatized as being sly and untrustworthy, something he aspired not to be as a child. He wanted to be a scout, his poor mother saved up to make him a uniform even! His peers treated him so badly, Nick grew up a cynic who preferred to simply embody all those stigmas, thinking that acting any differently wouldn't change anything... In the flashback, they gang up on him and put a muzzle (yes, a dog muzzle-looking device) on him. That's pretty much racial discrimination right there! Best of all, you legitimately feel his pain... This really comes into play much later on in the story.
You would think that Zootopia would be kind of a loud and frenetic film given its big plot, but the surprising thing is, it's very intimate and quiet. It's 108 minutes long, yet it feels like it's almost two hours, it takes its time without dragging. The action set pieces are indeed thrilling, but even then, those feel kind of tight-knit too! In a day and age where a lot of animated films feel like they're 70 minutes more so than 100, Zootopia is a refreshing change of pace. Pun intended. It's paced almost perfectly, maybe except the first ten minutes.
The plot unravels once more, the film keeps finding ways to top itself. Judy and Nick track the Night Howlers to a lab on a cliff. There, in a very suspenseful sequence with a part that made me audibly gasp in frustration (Judy's phone going off while she videos evidence!), they see all the missing mammals, and they're all wild. We see that Zootopia's politicians have a stake in all this, because of course! This is where the film really, really starts to gel.
Zootopia continues being a thrilling conspiracy story at this point, but not one that's tackling just prejudice, but now politics, media manipulation, fear-mongering, and mass stigmatizing! In a family film! Dear lord, I couldn't thank them anymore for this. This is where I really began to admire this film, up until then it was a very well-constructed and sharply-written action-adventure. Then our duo split up after Hopps kowtows in a press conference, implying that the predatory animals going wild simply can't ignore their animalistic instincts... Judy singlehandedly, thanks to Bellwether - a politician - and the press, stigmatizes 90% of Zootopia's population. Does that sound familiar?
It hits the emotions in both ways, in the best way possible. This sort-of "break-up and get back together routine just when they become the best of friends" device has been done to death in animation, but here Disney Animation, the hugely talented directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and all the great story people, did something really fresh and new with it. You don't even notice it! Nick's pain is particularly wrenching, as he's reminded of being bullied for being a carnivore, and betrayed by someone he considered a friend. He was going to join the police force! You know what else didn't help? Judy, by instinct, reaching for her can of fox spray when Nick makes a scary face and challenges her.
Hopps goes back to the farms of Bunnyburrow, once again a product of that classic plot device, but again... It all works, because she screwed up big time, and this is a big deal for her considering that she fears failure. Soon, she realizes the Night Howlers aren't wolves... But rather flowers that make animals turn into... Well, wild animals! Judy reunites with Nick, the case-cracking continues, for the journey now lands them in an abandoned subway. They see the serums being made, and how they were administered. Ram snipers did it! They were there along... Soon you realize that Ms. Bellwether is the bad guy!
Disney Animation loves twist/reveal villains these days. Wreck-It Ralph for me had the best reveal, but this equals it and then some. Bellwether is great and all despite not having much screen time as a "good" guy and a bad guy, but what mattered to me more was how the real villain was bigger than her, bigger than the city even. Much like Walt's films, Zootopia shows that you don't always have to have a clear cut bad guy. Bellwether aids anti-carnivore sentiment due to feeling like the little insignificant individual in the equation, and it doesn't help that she - like Judy - had been pushed around by a predatory animal or more.
A truly bitter villain, orchestrating something that makes for one of Disney's greatest non-living villains.
How she's defeated makes for one of the coolest, freshest Disney victories ever.
Yes, I absolutely adored every second of Zootopia.
The film ties a creative setting with a menagerie of fantastic characters - major and minor - and an ever-changing story that has all different flavors, like an animation sundae: Detective story, buddy cop comedy, action-adventure, follow your dream tale, even shades of a political thriller! One that tackles prejudice, racism, stigmatizing, corruption, the whole shebang. It's a modern-day Walt film.
Speaking of modern, it is not overtly modern. It isn't like an early 2000s DreamWorks film like some feared it would be, all those little pokes at real-world brands and such? I noticed maybe a couple? It wasn't blatant like it was in movies like Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. I think I only remember seeing Targoat and something else, but that's about it, other than the bootleg movies easter egg towards the end. Tech is not in your face either, and Judy's smartphone gave us that aforementioned gasp moment. Shakira's song plays when Judy hits the big city, her Gazelle character shows up to make a speech on television, and then she appears at the end. Great use of the character, and she actually did quite a good job voicing that one part! Shocking!
Anyways, it's more 101 Dalmatians than it is Chicken Little, thank goodness. Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 were similarly modern pictures, but they don't feel aggressively modern either. It's good to keep a timely story timeless, even if some elements might date it a bit... But we can say the same about several contemporary live-action films.
The cast... All the faces, just awesome. Judy and Nick make for an awesome duo, all the other characters have all these great personalities and are a blast to watch on screen, from no-nonsense police chief Bogo to the deceptively quirky Bellwether to Mr. Big. The voice actors? They nail it! The character animators? They outdid themselves! Characters that come in and out? They greatly add to it.
Visually, Zootopia is delicious. That city... I want to go back! I want like a tour of that city on the Blu-ray bonus features. Remember when Pixar did those 3D flyarounds of the locations in their films? Let's bring that back for CG films on Blu-ray, especially for this film! The architecture, the structuring, how the city is divided by species, how everything is perfectly scaled and measured... Flawless! This is a movie that shows exactly why animation can take us to places we've never seen!
Its tone is pretty much perfect, extremely balanced. Each mood fits each moment, and the picture perfectly juggles everything it has. Is it ever obnoxious like a chunk of other family-friendly animated films? Heck no. It's also very, very funny! When it gets emotional, it pulls out all the stops. Its darker moments perhaps could've pushed it a little more, but they are welcome anyway. It's darkness is more in the themes, rather than the visuals, though I suspect the feral animals will scare some kids. It doesn't pander to kids, at all. It's very much a movie aimed at adults that happens to be PG-rated, and one that hopes kids will come and enjoy it too.
I could go on. I really could... Zootopia just gets it all right. Its success ought to bring great things, because this feature pretty much forms an experimental trilogy with Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. All three films show audiences accustomed to princesses and 90s-style Broadway musical bombast that Disney Animation can indeed be about anything, and that it can tackle all kinds of genres, stories, and worlds. No different from the variety of films Walt gave us. Walt didn't repeat himself, "You can't top pigs with pigs." Snowmen were topped with superheroes, now those superheroes have been topped by anthro animals. I have a feeling this could open up a real creative rush at the studio, more so than Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph ever did.
It's near-perfect to me. It's Walt Disney Animation Studios moving forward. It's the studio doing what Walt would've wanted. It's like an exciting "everything burger", this is no come-and-go animated romp. The mouse really roared with this one...