Sunday, March 13, 2016

Zootopia (2016)

You know, we are truly living in one of the most progressive stages in the history of children's entertainment. While the more close-minded, pedantic crowd, who wishes every piece of childhood entertainment would be EXACT to the canon from their own childhood, would preach that due the increased role of technology, which has killed off the American-as-apple-pie tradition of the Saturday morning cartoon, children's entertainment is built more on superficial energy and simplistic, mind-numbing gimmicks meant to pander to the current Twitter generation, I personally believe that this generation is, whether they are conscious of it or not, experiencing an epoch in the medium ripe with a certain idiosyncratic creativity, spirit, and voice. 

Think about it. We have males rallying together in support of My Little Pony, because of its current reincarnation. We have shows on channels, like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that display characters of less traditional sexual orientations. Our highest-grossing animated film is a film that many, including me, view as challenging and mildly subverting gender roles, in the area of feminine strength and dependence of males. And the latest Disney effort, which is breaking some records previously held by the "elephant in the room," has chosen to tackle the issue... of racial disparity, as well as the status and image of the police force.

What kind of world are we living in? Well, for 108 minutes, we submit to the culture of Zootopia.

This film certainly had an uphill battle to overcome, in terms of the basic, bare-bones concept of the story. An ambitious young woman (actually, any gender for this story, but in this film's case, a woman) has a big dream that she fervently and persistently pursues, despite all the odds stacked against her. She winds up there, but, welp, she's the small fry and realizes that she is at the bottom and is not treated and favored as equally as her more powerful, more experienced comrades. So, she has to prove herself and work hard to truly fulfill her dream to the highest extent. She takes on a hefty task to prove herself as worthy. Oh, and she ends up having to work with someone of a completely different visage and temperament. They butt heads, but eventually they find a common ground and a weakness in each other that they try to help strengthen. By the end, our plucky underdog has come out on top, our seemingly incongruous duo become friends, and they both are stronger, happier people by the end. Oh, and all of this takes place in a world where animals are anthropomorphized, walking, talking, and existing as humans do.

The only real unique aspect about the story itself is the fact that the young, plucky woman is a rabbit named Judy. And her polar opposite is a fox named Nick.

So yeah, such a seemingly rote conceit shouldn't have this many layers. Shouldn't it? Well, for the first half, it is very entertaining, but it is very generic, safe, and very obedient of the path it has been placed on. However, the second half, while following the path, continues by carving its own way to continue. On the surface, it works as kids, selling an ostensibly simple message of acceptance, a message Disney has sold for years. The difference this time? The subtle, transcendental commentary.

Consider this. The world of Zootopia consists of two types: the predators and the prey. They manage to exist in adequate harmony, while still having some issues (i.e. stereotyping the predators as out-of-control and savage and the prey as ineffectual). While the prey happen to be the 90% majority of the population, the creature in charge happens to be what many consider to be the predator, the minority. After the "predator" leader gets in hot water over a secret operation and is persecuted, his practically voiceless assistant, who is part of the majority, wants to make sure that the minority is scorned by the majority. And the police aren't doing much to help matters, actually encouraging Judy the rabbit to represent the majority and be their voice, in fighting against the minority, which, due to a comment she made about their biological impulses, are seen as a threat.

The aspect of the police, while might mainly be seen as minute, is actually highly vital. While no violence is shown (Disney!), I reiterate: the police are not doing anything to help the minority, or so it is perceived. This attitude has been pervasive, in the wake of events that, while have always occurred, are spiking at a frustratingly high frequency to many people, but primarily minorities, African-Americans in particular. While statistics can prove that there is an emphatic racial slant when it comes to treatment by police, many individuals, especially of the "majority" in our country, think that police are just doing their job and, to some people, their actions are justifiable. In fact, I think the inherent emphasis of the detrimental martyrdom of the police and the abuse of their authority is criticized in one simple line when Judy says, "I became a police officer to serve and protect." That one terse, simple line manages to be so heavily cloaked in trenchancy, context, pertinence, and poignancy that it almost brought me to tears.

Furthermore, they actually showcase the effects of environment and how it can cause some to succumb to the stereotypes that are manifested. Consider a scene where Nick the fox is shown as a young kid wanting to be initiated into the Jr. Ranger Scouts organization. It is shown that he is faced with financial difficulties, as his mother has to "scrape money together" to get him a uniform, only to be greeted with disdain and mockery. It states that environment doesn't define you per se, but in order to survive and to sustain oneself, some people become the stereotypes that others of that distinct type try to evade. Hell, he grows up to stereotype Judy, which shows that, while certainly in differing degrees, you can be the oppressed and the oppressor. It presents the world as diverse, but imperfect. The way to alleviate this is to collaborate, not clash. And in an era where a self-righteous, entitled, xenophobic bigot is not only heightening and reviving these damaging attitudes, but might, just might, become President, this Disney film has a dual act as a guidebook for our country.

In addition, they, too, deliver some commentary on the unfair treatment of women in the workplace, particularly on how, in reality, women are treated on a different standard as men in the police force. When Judy the rabbit first enters, she's greeted by an employee who calls her "cute," as if she's just a delicate, ineffectual child. I guess it's Disney's way of apologizing for giving little girls mixed messages for ions, but it still speaks volumes.

However, as I stated earlier, the remarkable feat is that, while all these simmering details are present, it is not only presented straightforwardly, but it never loses sight of the entertainment value, which is definitely on a high level. The animation is gorgeous to look at, with some of the most winsome character designs in the Disney catalog, a world with concurrent climates, an area located above a waterfall, which is one of the most visually breathtaking locations I have ever witnessed in a Disney film, and some rousing action scenes, including a chase that takes place on a rope bridge, which has some profound white-knuckle moments. Also, given how the film involves a major assignment on the police force, I found myself in fierce admiration of the film noir touches added in. Shady, hazy destinations, nights of perpetual rain, and moments of darkness are nuances that add to the splendor tonally and visually.

Also to be impressed by is the talent brought onto this film. Directors Byron Howard, an experienced gent in the Disney company, and Rich Moore, who has history with shows like The Simpsons and Futurama, seem to have a real alchemy with writer and co-director Jared Bush, because the humor in this film is hilarious. While not every joke hits bulls-eye, the second third, in my opinion, includes some of the most riotous, risible comedy ever seen in a Disney film, including an already-seen-but-still-hilarious gag involving sloths in the DMV and one of the best Godfather parodies in all of cinema. It's one of those things where you feel that everybody was on the same page.

Speaking of talent, Disney usually attracts the best. And this film is stuffed with fine vocal work from Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Maurice LaMarche, Tommy Chong, Shakira (what?), and Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy. But, by far, the biggest revelation is Jason Bateman as Nick the fox. 2013's Identity Thief received massively negative reviews from critics, many of which criticized Bateman's perpetuation of his innocuous, oblivious, straight man schtick. Apparently, he took what critics said to heart, given his first profane, sardonic punch in Bad Words, and his second wry, cunning punch in this film, where he perfectly compliments Nick's sarcastically suave dialogue and his droll grin.

Now, as much as I praise this film, it's not perfect, because for the most part, it's more entertaining than exceptional, minus the underlying messages. There is a joke here and there that falls flat and also, *sigh* the music. Not the score by Disney/kid's film composer giant Michael Giacchino, mind you. I'm referring to the main song by Shakira. Maybe it's just me, but I'm really getting sick of hearing Shakira. I mean, her music was never one of the unquestionable touchstones of popular culture, but the more she tries to adapt, the more stodgy she becomes. I know her hips don't lie, but neither do I.

Regardless, this is another step in the right direction, a film that shows that instead of trying to top or battle PIXAR, Disney's attempt at CGI films can, in their own way, sit alongside PIXAR. I mean, it's still obviously cutesy, marketable Disney, but it is still the most topical, the most culturally aware Disney has ever been. It is the closest they will come to Inside Out. While it is not as monumental, it still shows Disney maneuvering a new twist on a habitual narrative and pulling it off with flying colors. It's strange that a Disney film would have more in common with Straight Outta Compton than with something like A Bug's Life, but there it is. Disney's Zootopia bears striking parallels to Obama's America. That's some real shit, right there.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

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