Monday, March 14, 2016

ZOOTOPIA Is Thematically-Ambitious Animation That Deals In Messy Metaphors


- ZOOTOPIA is one of the most thematically-ambitious animated Disney movies ever made. It's a dense film with *a lot* to unpack from its narrative. Some will watch it only on a very surface level, ignoring the socio-political overtones and choosing to simply enjoy the film as standard-issue Disney fare. And certainly, many (kids in particular) will be too busy admiring the film's eye-popping, colorful world and fantastically-designed characters to read too much into the text. At the same time, the movie's social commentary is pretty overt and hard to miss. The film exists in a fantasy world filled with anthropomorphic animals - but the parallels to our world are very much apparent. In theory, I want to give a lot of credit to a movie bold enough to have this much on its mind. And in many ways, ZOOTOPIA works. The movie feels "important" in a way that your average Disney movie doesn't. But I also came away unsure that the movie's message entirely makes sense or holds up when looked at through a real-world lens. By trying to tackle so many issues, themes, genres, and narrative threads ... I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Zootopia, for all its strengths, bites off a bit more than it can chew.

What works best about ZOOTOPIA is its core narrative - the story of plucky Judy Hopps - a young rabbit who decides to leave her small-town farm life to try to make it in the big city of Zootopia - becoming the first ever rabbit cop. Judy is diminutive as compared to most of the rest of the police force, but what she lacks in size she makes up for in drive, determination, and can-do attitude. Judy grew up in an environment where there were still residual tensions between the two dominant types of animals: predators and prey. Even though predators had long stopped hunting and eating other animals, there was still tension between the two groups. However, Zootopia was supposed to be a place where those tensions evaporated - lost in a big-city melting pot where anyone can be anything. But when Judy finally arrives there, she realizes that the city is not quite the tension-free paradise she'd imagined. Other animals still prejudge her for being a rabbit, constantly calling her "cute." Bigger animals still prejudge her for being a smaller animal. And all the while, tensions mount between predators and prey. A new drug on the streets has been causing some predators to "go savage" and attack prey.

So yeah - there's *a lot* going on here. Even just genre-wise, ZOOTOPIA is in turn a small-town/big-city fable, a police drama, a neo-noir crime story (yes, really!), an action movie, and a parable about racism and prejudice.

But through it all, the likability of Judy Hopps keeps the movie's momentum strong. And again, when the film focuses on Judy's personal journey, it really soars. Ginnifer Goodwin provides Judy's voice, and she's great - helping to make Judy really come to life. Ultimately, what makes Judy so interesting is that she isn't just a perfect protagonist. She falls prey (no pun intended) to some of the same prejudices and misconceptions as other characters in the movie. As her arc progresses, Judy has to learn some hard lessons about her own misguided preconceptions about other animals.

Where things become strange though is in the way the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. Aside from Judy, the other main character here is Nick Wilde - a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman. When Judy first meets Nick, he's revealed to be a con-artist criminal running various scams around Zootopia. In other words, he's exactly what one would expect a fox to be. But Nick's arc is about overcoming the limitations of what you were always told you were supposed to be, and becoming something more. Nick was always told that foxes behaved a certain way, and so he did. Only with Judy's urging does he realize that he can be more than just a con-man and scam-artist. As he helps her solve the mystery of what's happening to Zootopia's predators, he becomes a better person. What strikes me as a little off though is how, on one hand, the movie is about these animals transcending the stereotypes that they conform to - but on the other hand, having a lot of fun with showing animals 100% playing out those stereotypes. Even as the movie takes pains to show us how there's more to Judy and Nick then just being, respectively, a rabbit and a fox, it also gets a lot of jokes out of animals acting exactly according to preconceptions. Wolves being wolves, mice being mice, sloths being sloths, and even a gang of animal mobsters ripped straight out of The Godfather. ZOOTOPIA really is an anything-goes salad bowl of made-up, real-life, and pop-culture stereotypes. But at times, the movie is having too much fun playing *to* those stereotypes to remember that it's supposed to be about characters defying them.

The film also drops in a lot of moments clearly meant to invoke real-life instances of racial and cultural tension. There are moments that evoke prejudice against African-Americans, against Muslims - and moments that similarly evoke the ways politicians play on those kinds of fears of the "other" to amass supporters and power. It's pretty remarkable that this sort of stuff made it into a Disney movie. And again, I give ZOOTOPIA a huge amount of credit for daring to take on this kind of weighty stuff head-on. But the desire to mix all of these sorts of real-life examples of prejudice together, and to do so inside a fantasy world with its own backstories and "rules," can make things very messy. Without harping on this too much, the clearest example of this messiness is in the film's central conflict between predators and prey. On one hand, the film clearly and visibly will equate this conflict to the kinds of real-world cultural conflicts that are visible today in American society (and Zootopia itself, no question, is a fantasy version of America and its melting-pot ideals). But on the other hand, in Zootopia's universe, there was a time when predators did in fact hunt and kill and eat prey. So as much as predators in the present have disavowed this behavior ... is it really that unreasonable, if you're prey, to fear animals that at one time were genetically programmed to hunt and eat you? It makes for a dicey metaphor. Now, I don't think the animals of ZOOTOPIA are meant to have a one-to-one correlation with any particular real-world races or religions. But the inclusion of so many moments that do evoke our reality muddy the waters.

So does ZOOTOPIA work simply as a movie about following your passion and not listening to artificial limitations that people might place on you? Yes. But there is more on the movie's mind than just that, and the more layers it adds, the more muddied the message becomes.

Thematic issues aside though, ZOOTOPIA is sort of amazing in terms of how far it strays, genre-wise, from a typical Disney adventure story. The movie, on the whole, is pretty dark. It's got plenty of scenes that will potentially scare the crap out of young kids - a nightmarish moment that shows captured predators being experimented on in a prison-like lab. Moments where animals go savage to horrifying effect. Not to mention, the movie's got lots of pretty adult references - a direct nod to Walter and Jesse's meth-cooking on Breaking Bad, the aforementioned mafia-movie call-backs, and an extended scene at a hippie commune (led by a stoner yak voiced by Tommy Chong) where clothes are discouraged and the animals proudly flaunt their nakedness. As Judy and Nick work their case, the movie takes on the trappings of a classic film noir - with the two encountering one shady character after another. It's like a mix of Inherent Vice and a 90's-era LucasArts adventure game. The movie relentlessly genre-blends. There are big, gorgeously-directed set-piece action sequences - which range from Judy pursuing a crook through various parts of Zootopia to her and Nick evading bad guys through a lush rainforest. There are moments of police procedural, moments of slapstick comedy, pop-culture references and parodies aplenty, and moments that take the form of a storming-town hall social-justice passion play. Like I said, this movie is nothing if not ambitious.

It also looks amazing. The animation is some of the most vibrant and detailed I've yet seen, and the character design is top-to-bottom awesome. The diversity of the movie's various environments is also pretty mind-blowing, and they all, in their own way, look fantastic. There's the gleaming cityscape of Zootopia, the sprawling fields and open sky of Judy's farm-town, the overgrown vegetation of the rainforest district, and the list goes on.

ZOOTOPIA is so jam-packed with characters, ideas, and ambition that it's easy to lose sight of the movie's (very well-done) core. Like I said, it works extremely well at its most basic level - as an eye-poppingly colorful parable about how anyone can be anything. That basic message resonates, and it's a simple yet powerful one for kids and adults alike. And Judy Hopps is the perfect combination of likable, capable, and flawed to deliver it. But I do think that the movie shoots for the moon, but misses the mark. It's a very good movie that badly wants to be *great.* It just doesn't have the clarity of vision to get there. Still, you've got to give ZOOTOPIA props for aiming high.

My Grade: B+

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