Sunday, March 27, 2016


Alternate Title:  Hop Fuzz

One sentence synopsis:    A rabbit police officer and fox con-man team up to solve a mysterious series of violent assaults by the "predator" minority of the animal metropolis Zootopia.

Things Havoc liked: Disney has been on something of a tear in recent years, a full on third Renaissance for a studio which seems unable to do wrong either in whole or in part. The recent burst of quality includes a whole host of top quality animated films such as Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6, all the of which were excellent films worthy of being considered alongside the best work of their counterparts at DreamWorks and Pixar. And so it is that this year, during a period generally bereft of quality for film in general, Disney has graced us with another would-be masterpiece, a light-hearted children's animated romp involving such fun, wacky subjects as racism, police brutality, and the ways in which politicians can use the media to engender fear and hatred.


Zootopia, a fun animated film in the traditional style of modern Disney movies, is a film with a whole lot going on, a mish-mash of styles, themes, and genres including everything from 80s caper flicks to classical Disney fare like The Fox and The Hound. It's a towering edifice of a film, packed with in-jokes and subtext, thematic complexity and high-velocity situational gags. Directed by Rich Moore (of Wreck-it Ralph) and Byron Howard (of nothing in particular), it is, without mincing words, a staggeringly good movie, one that tackles a whole series of complex issues in all their glorious complexity and makes an engaging, funny, compelling story out of them, all without simplifying the situation down for the kids in the audience or preaching dogmatically to the adults. It's not unusual to see animated movies tackle difficult subjects these days, nor is it some kind of revelation, in a post-Pixar world, to discover that kids movies can have something to say to adults. What is both unusual and revelatory, is a movie by a major studio that manages to do these things this well, and wrap it all together in a Disney-style animated romp full of humor, adventure, wonder, and engaging characters.

The premise, familiar to anyone who's seen the trailers, is relatively simple. Mammalian species of every type are, sentient, bipedal creatures, who live in and around a gigantic, modern metropolis known as Zootopia, a fully modern city with assorted amenities to cater to the vastly different sizes and preferred climates of its denizens. Arriving in this megalopolis of purported peace and tolerance is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) a newly-minted ZPD police officer, the first rabbit to become a cop in the history of the city. Struggling against prejudice against a rabbit as a policeman, she winds up embroiled in a complex missing persons (animals?) case, roping a con-artist fox named Nick (Jason Bateman) into the investigation through threats and blackmail. If this story sounds familiar to you, it may be because you remember the 1982 Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte action-comedy 48 Hrs, the movie that essentially invented the "buddy cop" genre as we know it today, and which Zootopia takes, of all things, as its clear plot inspiration. Given the purpose the movie puts this plot to, which is to explore the dynamics of prejudice and racism in more or less explicit detail, this is an odd place to draw from, but then Zootopia is an odd movie, part screwball comedy, part crime mystery, and part somber message movie on the need for tolerance.

By now, I'm sure everyone is aware that I have very little tolerance for message films, particularly polemical ones raging about some worldview that is proper and showcasing the various ogreish personality flaws of those who do not abide by it. It therefore comes as a surprise to me as much as anyone that Zootopia, the animated Disney film about bunnies and foxes, is one of the most rational, nuanced, and even-handed movies on the subject of prejudice that I have ever seen. In a film that, for all its weird premises, is clearly based around our modern society, the movie dispenses with cheap villains, mustache-twirling racists, and even the easy lure of simple allegory, wherein elephants would equate to black people or whatnot. The primary dynamic at work in Zootopia is one of Predator and Prey animals, with intersecting elements of prejudice based around size or species, and yet nowhere in the movie can one draw a direct parallel, though references to the real world abound. At one point it seems like the dynamic is that of the larger and more powerful Predators exerting societal dominance over their Prey counterparts, only for the film to shift subtly around to where the majority Prey population exhibits fear and hate towards the Predator minority, all while the film navigates a blisteringly complex web of interconnected stereotypes, prejudices, and racial (speci-al?) hangups. Yet unlike a movie like Crash, whose message was that everyone is an equally noxious racist who should be condemned for their lack of enlightenment, Zootopia's position is far more nuanced, recognizing that everyone is capable of judgmental, even prejudiced actions, particularly when there exist people willing to suborn our baser fears so as to generate division, mistrust, and power vacuums.

But if all of the above sounds like a particularly well-made after-school-special about racism, then don't worry on that account, for despite all of the social complexity that the film carries, at its core, it is a superlative Disney adventure-mystery film. Both of the leads are sharp, well-drawn characters, wickedly funny in their own right, with spot-on voice acting and perfect character design, giving them unparalleled expressiveness, whether in a layered dialogue scene or a frenetic chase. The film is layered with puns (*groan*), in-jokes, and background gags, most of them too funny to spoil here, and further comes with a superb supporting cast, including the incomparable Idris Elba playing the "stern black police chief" as a Cape Buffalo and the immortal J.K. Simmons bringing his J. Jonah Jameson best to the role of Zootopia's mayor, while lesser parts go to everyone from Alan Tudyk and Maurice LaMarche (playing a Vito Corleone-style crime lord who is also a shrew), to Bonnie Hunt and Tommy Freaking Chong. The film's animation is spotless, with the animals' movements a perfect blend of actual animals and Disney archetypes, with the shots of even the most action-packed sequences easy to follow, while the style of the metropolis of Zootopia itself is dazzling in its futuristic-utopian grandeur. Even if you care nothing about the societal value of a particular movie, Zootopia can be enjoyed as nothing more than another classic Disney comedy, and that, most likely, is the secret to its success.

Things Havoc disliked: Of course, some bits of the film work better than others. The addition of Shakira, embodied as a pop-singer gazelle named (creatively) "Gazelle" isn't used for much beyond a cheap joke or two, and the cutaways to her benefit concerts and protest sit-ins regarding prejudice and racism are far more on the nose than the movie requires. Without spoiling too much, the entire coda to the movie is taken up by one of the aforementioned concerts, and while I usually refrain from criticizing a film for its credits sequence, the song in question isn't that good, and the entire affair feels like stunt casting to appease a performer's ego, rather than something derived from the movie internally.

Final thoughts:     In an age full of polemic, Zootopia is a marvel, a movie that neither sells out the seriousness of its allegorical premise, nor weights itself down with sermonizing. I cannot possibly do it more justice than the Daily Telegraph, which described it as "the most existentially probing talking animal cartoon of the year," albeit in a review that managed to fall all over itself in missing the point by declaring that Zootopia somehow "proved" that girls who like frilly dresses or girly things should be publicly shamed for being everything that is wrong with society. Indeed, despite my minor nitpick above, the main thing I would complain about with Zootopia is the reaction it seems to have engendered from the rest of the critical set, with large numbers of critics managing to read it as a full-throated endorsement of every noxious, divisive, stereotyping opinion that they choose to slather onto their review pages, from a claim that it will "finally put the PC-thought police set in their place", to arguments that it represents a call to "sterilize the brainless zombie-hordes of Trump supporters" (though admittedly, the Chinese Army's declaration that the movie represents a Western plot to overthrow traditional society is kind of amazing, as is the Globe & Mail's claim that the movie is sexually perverted because it doesn't explicitly address cross-species romance). Only in Hollywood could a movie about the complexities inherent in our quest for equality and tolerance be interpreted as an excuse to air the most vile assumptions about millions of people we don't know, but I cannot, in all good conscience, hold the film responsible for that. The world is, as the film reminds us, imperfect, as are we all, and yet it keeps on spinning.

Ultimately, Zootopia is a fine movie, a worthy successor to the many other fine movies that Disney has graced us with. And whatever the reactions of the rest of the world, a timely, well-crafted, and entertaining reminder that it is everyone's responsibility to try and get along is no bad thing.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Maggie Smith as a Bag Lady?  Sign me up!

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