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Disney Sundays: Zootopia (2016)

          Last week I noted the similar pattern this era of Disney has with the original Disney Renaissance. And in a way Zootopia is still continuing it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nowhere near as dark and shocking as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but like that film it does address themes most of us previously thought Disney would never touch. But maybe it does it a little too much at the expense of story and character.
          The film presents a modern world much like our own, except everything’s run by animals. And in said world, a humble country rabbit called Judy Hopps aspires to become a police officer in the big city Zootopia. However because she’s what society often calls prey (as opposed to predators), a small herbivore, it’s an uphill battle. But she actually overcomes the underdog story pretty quickly and once in Zootopia partners with a con artist fox called Nick Wilde to solve a series of missing person cases all revolving around predators and a larger conspiracy.
          It’s very clear from the start exactly what kind of movie this is. And that’s really the films’ biggest weakness. There’s a lot of talk early on even in the flashback introducing Judy, that this world consists of predators and prey and that anyone can do anything. From that point on you know this is going to be a story about prejudice and more specifically, an allegory for race relations. There are plenty of instances where we see certain animals passing judgements on others, underestimating them, especially with regards to Judy. Her parents are racist against foxes, it threads all throughout the movie and makes up the major theme of the film. And it goes further with the metaphor in its depiction of the police relationship to predatorial minorities and profiling. Which again, is something you never thought you’d see in a Disney film. The scene where Judy addresses the press is incredibly on the nose in what it’s really saying. And it’s tremendously distracting. Every time you see someone stereotyped or profiled, you can’t help but sigh at how blatant it is. The film’s preaching to you and though it’s a very good message, it undermines the story. I feel like the allegory may have even come about in the development stage before the plot which isn’t a good thing. And I hate that it has this effect because the way it presents race relations is generally pretty good. I love how we see the multiple sides of prejudice, how both Judy and Nick suffer from societal judgements. The film doesn’t pick a side which it shouldn’t, and of course this makes it feel true to life. But because it’s really obvious and because the movie on a whole hinges so much on it from the very start that you know what beats to expect and where the story will eventually go, it bogs down what would otherwise be a pretty great movie. That and a few of the clichés we see from time to time, probably most notable being a parting between the two leads which you know is only going to be temporary.
          Now that that’s out of the way and I may have made a few enemies, let’s get into what I really like about this movie. Because there is a lot. In fact I probably like it better now than I did when I first saw it earlier this year. When the story’s not focussed on its’ metaphor it’s presenting a really fun mystery that keeps you interested. About halfway through you can definitely guess who the culprit behind all this is but you’re still treated to an exciting jaunt through an exciting world. I love Zootopia, it feels like a legitimate metropolis. Especially when Judy’s first arriving as she looks out on all these districts from the train and getting off in the train station, it particularly reminded me of travelling via train and metro in the big cities of Europe. The differing districts offer a lot of creative environments, and it’s a bit of a shame we don’t see more of them. But we do get a tiny mouse village which is really great. It’s also very interesting that this is a modern world. I remember first seeing the teasers for this movie and thinking it looked lame and derivative, but how many modernized anthropomorphic animals have we seen in film animation? Certainly none that are as detailed as in this movie. It’s kind of surreal to see a bunny rabbit in a regular police uniform listening to music on an ipod or face-timing. But it is interesting and new. Animation-wise the movie’s really good too, the whole city having a nice look to it. And of course there’s the characters themselves who are intentionally animated to look just anthropomorphic enough to still be animals but convey mostly human attributes. And don’t tell me Disney made this movie unaware of the furry audience!
          Judy’s voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin and is a decent lead character. She’s determined, affable, sympathetic largely due to her size in comparison to her colleagues. And her background both culturally and personally gives you a good idea of her character. But if the movie was just about her it’d probably be pretty dull. That’s where Nick comes in. Voiced very well by Jason Bateman, he’s funny, cocky, smarmy, shrewd and he’s a character I’ve seen countless times in movies before. Even the somewhat tragic backstory (where he’s voiced by Kath Soucie) he’s nothing very unique. On his own I think he’d be less interesting than Judy. But put together these two make for a very enjoyable pair. The chemistry between the characters is remarkable, the way they bounce off each other, repeatedly gain the upper hand is a lot of fun to watch. Zootopia’s actually a better buddy movie than The Emperor’s New Groove, as these two are a duo who work so much better than they would separately. Also, isn’t Nick’s design just an update of Robin Hood? Idris Elba is very good as Chief Bogo, Judy’s superior officer, one of my favourite actors J.K. Simmons is excellent as the vain Mayor Lionheart, accompanied by a timid Jenny Slate as his sheep assistant. There’s a comic relief cheetah I was sure was Josh Gad (actually Nate Torrence) who’s probably the least funny character. There are minor performances from Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake, Octavia Spencer, and Tommy Chong. I and most other Canadians were thrilled to hear CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge as Zootopia’s anchor (called “Moosebridge”). Alan Tudyk is still with Disney giving his best Steve Buscemi impression as Duke Weaselton (get it? Because in Frozen he was the Duke of Weselton!) And Shakira’s frequently advertised kinda shamelessly as a pop star gazelle. Oh and welcome back to Disney Jesse Corti! I doubt most people myself included, realized that the voice of the panther Manchas was LeFou from Beauty and the Beast! I’m also happy at the level of voiceover artists included in this movie like John DiMaggio and Maurice LaMarche doing his Don Corleone impression.
          Of course it makes sense that these Futurama performers would show up in this movie as once again Rich Moore was at the helm (with Byron Howard). And like Wreck-It Ralph, this film takes every advantage of its simple premise with its humour. The comedy isn’t as regular as in that movie but it still manages to get out some very good jokes. Some even are based on the stereotypes the film is trying to subvert. Like how everyone hates parking attendants. Yeah, it’s only about half and half, some of the comedy really misses. But for every lame pun about an elephant in the room, or that irritating sloth DMV bit that was funny one time in the trailer; there’s a ton of great visual gags, a funny nod to Frozen, or an incredibly subtle wolf-in-sheeps-clothing moment that’s hysterical! The smart jokes are just too good and most of them can be enjoyed by both kids and adults. Though there are definitely a few that are just for the grown-ups, like that line about rabbits multiplying, what looks something very similar to a meth lab, and animal nudists (which doesn’t entirely work considering no animals are animated with genitals). 
          Zootopia is a good movie that could have been great. I think what annoys me most about the social commentary of this film is that it’s necessary and relevant. Like the film Do the Right Thing there is no reason these messages should be relevant in this day and age, but sadly they are. And it does get across those points relatively well. If all the major race-relation scenes were condensed into a PSA it’d be fantastic. As is, the points where the film stops to emphasize this message bug me, but a part of me feels bad faulting it as it’s executed in a way that can inspire and even educate children. There is enough good in the film that I can recommend, like a fun story, a really great pair of protagonists, and some pretty clever comedy. And it shows that after the disappointment of Big Hero 6, Disney’s still doing good.
          Which actually has me worried about this Disney Renaissance pattern. Is Moana going to be the next Hercules?

Next Week: Moana (2016)

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