Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Born To Be Wild

Year: 2016
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, & Jared Bush
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba 
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Friends, furries, countrymen… Lend me your ears. On my third anniversary with a certain Disneyphile, I had occasion to attend the opening night of Zootopia, the newest film from Disney Animation’s CGI wing (which, let’s face it, is not as good, but Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Big Hero 6 soften the blow). Frankly, I was not sold by the deeply unimpressive trailer, which frontloaded a sloth gag as old and creaky as Gandalf’s knees, and the improbably high Rotten Tomatoes score only served to make me more suspicious. However, I am pleased to announce that I come bearing good news! But first… the plot.

AKA: The part in between the constantly replaying Shakira song.

In Zootopia, animals have evolved past their savage, wild ways. Predators and prey now live in harmony, doing all the fun things that people do, like taxes and Tinder and eating ice cream, only furrier. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town bunny with a dream, to serve and protect the citizens of the bustling metropolis Zootopia as a member of the police force. The first bunny on the force, she doesn’t fit in with her burly, aggressive coworkers and gets stuck on parking detail. Overeager to pursue justice rather than follow orders, she ends up on the bad side of Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), who gives her 48 hours to solve a missing mammal case, or else her badge is revoked.

Her unlikely partner in this endeavor is the con-man (or rather, con-fox) Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), at which point Zootopia promptly becomes, against all odds, a buddy cop movie. In the process of their investigation, Nick and Judy discover a vast and dangerous conspiracy that will challenge everything they know about the world… and themselves.

AKA: The people who aren’t Shakira.

If you have seen any amount of promo for Zootopia, you might assume (reasonably) that the film is some sort of animated sloth delivery system, but you would be wrong. As hard as they’re pushing those side characters to sell sloth plushies, the bulk of the movie is blissfully free of their musty antics (why they’ve zeroed in on the sloth when a blissed-out yak and a heart-meltingly adorable fennec fox have more, and stronger, screen time is beyond me, but I guess I should pull an Elsa and let it go). What the trailers completely fail to communicate is that Zootopia is an ingeniously crafted modern fable that takes the form of a hardboiled mystery procedural, something I feel was pretty vital to mention. But alas, this is not a review of the Disney publicity department, so let’s move on.

You guys know I love me some world-building, and Zootopia has it in spades. There is one intractable conceptual problem, in that the anthropomorphic citizenry frequently refer to themselves being animals to excuse certain behaviors. However, in a world with no humans, the concept of an “animal” as a wild or uncivilized creature couldn’t exist. That is, unless Zootopia takes place on a post-human extinction Earth, Planet of the Apes style. But I digress. Wildly.

When you’re presented with the concept “animals doing people things,” it’s pretty easy to come up with a half dozen gags off the top of your head. It’s a gimme concept. However, I’m delighted to report that the filmmakers were far from lazy when constructing their animal utopia. In addition to a series of clever but typical gags about animal behavior (wolves love to howl, lemmings have a tendency to be followers, goddamn sloths are slow), Zootopia really digs into a fresh concept: What are the implications of a society composed of hundreds of different animal species? What habitats would they need? What municipal structures would be necessary to foster inter-species cooperation?

Zootopia has its most fun when it is exploring these concepts through delirious visual gags and gorgeous city structures, fostered by the feverishly creative, lush environs courtesy of production designers David Goetz and Dan Cooper. It’s a well thought-out universe, the result of meticulous study, and an excellent breeding ground for the film’s Big Ol’ Message. Zootopia has a strong moral, an appropriately modern treatise/racial allegory about diversity, cooperation, and prejudice that would be obnoxiously preachy in any other movie. However, it is so organically developed through characters and their environments that it becomes even stronger for it, as intrinsic and natural to the film’s universe as fluffy bunnies.

It’s also, like, and important message or whatever, but world-building, you guys.

It really is a fun time at the movies, consistently enjoyable for children and adults alike. I always respect family entertainment that has a brain in its head, and Zootopia is a very sharp, deliberate film with a real sense of purpose. It’s a creative mix of seemingly disparate genres, a wacky yet sometimes dangerous romp with actual stakes, and it teaches you not to be so rude to parking enforcers. It’s a win-win-win!

That said, the tsunami of critical adoration this film ha been receiving is bonkers. It’s a solid, sweet family film, but not even The Shawshank Redemption has a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. For all its genuine quality, it’s still a new age animated movie, with all the inane pop culture references and slyly inappropriate “for the parents” jokes that that entails. These moments are of a slightly higher caliber than your typical kids fodder, but Zootopia isn’t free from those pitfalls.

I would give the film an unqualified recommendation to anybody with two eyes and heart, but it isn’t the second coming of Pixar. Not that a movie need to be that in order to be pretty damn remarkable.

TL;DR: Zootopia is a fun, smart exercise in children's filmmaking with a solid, ironically human message.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 985

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