The Review: Part V
I'm a bit short on sleep at the moment, and my basic opinion on Zootopia is that it's a good, fun film, definitely worth seeing. My post is going to wander around a lot, more personal impressions than flat-out review. I'm not going to summarize the plot (assuming the other reviewers here have already done so), however I will be mentioning some elements of story structure that are semi-spoilerish.
Full disclosure (and my apologies for the long rant): I'm usually pretty anti-Disney, mainly due to how it's a huge corporate behemoth whose marketing and branding is next to impossible to escape. The months and months of Star Wars hype is still going on, even after the release. The company produces a cultural influence so wide-spread that at times I've found it disturbing. Plus I work with librarians, who don't mince words when talking about Disney and copyright law.
I will never step foot inside a Disney park, and my bias makes me outright avoid most of their movies and TV series. I refuse to watch Frozen and have never liked The Lion King. But I'm also aware that my bias has led me to missing some productions that have gotten a lot of fan praise. Thanks to friends (hi Hiker, hi Marlos!) who know what I like, occasionally I get sat down in front of carefully selected videos. "Look, we know you're not a fan of Disney stuff, but we thought you might like this." And you know what? They've been right!
So even though I haven't watched the entire run of shows like Gargoyles and Gravity Falls, I understand the fan love, and can still appreciate them on their own. Here's what I've watched in the past couple of years and enjoyed: The Emperor's New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, Bolt, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and several Marvel Studios productions.
Get on with it
Hey, I chose this handle for a reason! Seriously though, context is important. I had avoided as much information about Zootopia as possible, except for some development art, the first English and Japanese trailers, and the sloth short. I got some of the local furries together see a 4 p.m., non-3D Saturday showing. There were about 13 of us, no fursuiters, and one new person! Folks were invited over to my place afterwards, but we mainly scattered to the four winds after the film was over.
Our theater was packed, and we estimated that there were twice as many kids as adults. All of the kids seemed to be between ages 4 and 7, a very young crowd with their parents – and amazingly well-behaved. They were totally engrossed in the movie. The three opening ads were for a large SUV and two trucks. Given gas prices in Canada, I don't think anyone in the audience was interested.
Finding Dory, looks like it's going to be fun!
Ice Age: Collision Course, enh, no.
The Jungle Book, live-action remake with a lot of CGI animals. I had been hoping a more detailed trailer would show up before Zootopia, because it makes good marketing sense. I hadn't realized the release was coming up so quickly, in April. I'm rather thrown off that Kaa is now female and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She makes a great Black Widow, but otherwise I don't personally like her acting style (Lucy), and now that she's a hot item of course she's going to be in Ghost in the Shell which I really think should be played by an Asian actress (and not Tia Carrere either). Also, King Louie has a heavy American accent that sounds completely out of place. Not going to be watching this.
The Secret Life of Pets, the original trailer looked like it was going to be about what animals do at home when their owners leave. Its new trailer greatly expands the plot. A dog resents another new dog that their owner brings home, there's adventures going across the city either trying to escape from (or into?) the dog pound. And a group of abandoned animals have some sort of organized crime thing going on, probably the antagonists. There's a hawk or a falcon character too. Not sure if I'll go see this; I'll wait for reviews.
I was surprised there wasn't an animated short before the main feature.
Over the past couple of years, North American society has been building momentum on getting issues of diversity and civility into the open. Women and people of race having less opportunities in Hollywood, minority roles have been played by white actors, tensions between whites and blacks (especially when police are involved) have strained, and there is post 9-11 Islamophobia.
In the realm of fandom, there's been serious concern about online abuse, especially sexual harassment, gender issues in video game design, safety policies and staff responsibility at conventions, the "Sad Puppies" Hugo Award mess ... and during all of this, a push for better treatment of transgendered people, who face an uphill battle what with all these other battles happening at the same time.
Part of me worries that entertainment creators will become paranoid about how much diversity to include. And Disney certainly doesn't want to get bogged down in that kind of thing, they're all about marketing happiness. So Zootopia has to supply some kind of light-hearted, positive message without getting too bogged down by current trends. They play it safe, and it works out. Trying to deconstruct the movie to any huge depth about underlying social commentary seems pointless, because that's not what they're aiming for. And deconstruction can get depressing. Does Nick represent black people? Are the cops ethical? I'll leave that to others.
The basic message seems to be: Try to break the barriers of what society thinks you can or can't do. Yes, we each have limits and will make mistakes, but we should try nonetheless. This is pretty much summed up by Gazelle's (Shakira's) song "Try Everything", a bouncy if generic and poppy feel-good song that's pretty common to Disney productions, encouraging kids to extend themselves. Compare AnnaSophia Robb's "Keep Your Mind Wide Open", from Disney's Bridge to Terabithia.
I was initially curious about what form of prejudice Judy Hopps would be encountering on the police force. Not just as their first rabbit, but what about being a female cop? This isn't really addressed, even though the typically skewed Hollywood male/female balance seems to be at play here. The first cop you meet is a strong-willed, no-nonsense female polar bear police academy trainer, probably to get the gender thing settled immediately, after which it's pretty much ignored for the rest of the film.
There's a predator vs. prey conflict being built up, however it feels a bit artificial and simplified. Real life has mixed-race people. Animal life has critters in the middle of the food chain, and omnivores, but the film doesn't want to tread into that kind of complexity, keeping the storytelling conflicts simple. In contrast, one of the things I liked about the Harry Potter books was that the adult world wasn't painted as black and white, there was a lot of complex politics that the kids had to learn and work around. The film passes the Bechdel test, barely. Judy and Bellwether each have names and talk to each other about subjects other than men.
Characters and dialog
Judy and Nick make a fine pair with very different takes on how to deal with what society perceives their capabilities to be. Very strong female character. I eventually liked Nick, but man, it was hard at first, because I was surprised at just how rude and blunt a lot of the characters were. It really made for strong writing and getting across how insulting chauvinism feels. From Nick's constant jerk jibes, Chief Bogo's flat-out disrespect and sabotaging of Judy's career choice, Judy's noisy neighbors, heck, even her parents. Ouch! It really drilled in the point.
The fat cheetah Clawhauser – ha ha, overweight people are wacky and funny and socially inept and not to be taken seriously! Can we stop with the wacky food-obsessed big eater trope? Real chance to be progressive here. Maybe it was built up this way dramatically, so that it felt sadder when he was being made to move away from the front desk. Still, I don't think that's enough of an excuse to perpetuate this stereotype.
What was Chief Bogo's (Idris Elba's) accent supposed to be? I didn't mind it, but I couldn't stop trying to figure it out. Tommy Chong as the yak – brilliant. Overall I liked the various characters that were encountered.
There were little fun things for adults that kids wouldn't notice, always a plus. The carrot pen – glad it wasn't over-used, they kept it to the rule-of-three. Blueberry switch, saw that coming. I thought the young fox bully might end up being Judy's future antagonist, and actually I felt really touched to hear a simple, humble apology out of the blue from him as an adult. I think that's a nice message for kids.
Very interesting fake-out on who the ultimate antagonist was, I had not expected that kind of pace to the story.When the first arrest happened, I felt unnerved."Wait... something is wrong, this is too early in the story to get things solved..." Although I was happily surprised by the final antagonist, I thought their motive was really weak. Aside from the prejudice angle, neither Zootopian society nor its predator-prey multiculturalism felt like it was falling apart. It looked thriving and alive, a peaceable kingdom, so the antagonist seemed unnecessarily paranoid and ideological.
Besides the Clawhauser thing, there was one, and only one other thing that I really, really did not like in the film. That was the scene where Judy figures out what's causing the changes in predator behavior. My suspension of disbelief was entirely shattered, I fell completely out of the film, and wanted to shout, "Oh, come ON!" I cannot in any way believe than an advanced society with so many species living together with so many different diets, modern buildings and technology could be so naïvely unaware of the spoiler. That was not good writing.
And so easy to fix! Have a police medical examiner. "We found all these marks on the victims, and there's some kind of toxin in the blood we can't identify". Some other expert pipes up, "Didn't we have an outbreak of something similar like 30 years ago?" or knowing it's a controlled substance. Judy hears these bits and pieces at different times and then has a moment of realization where she puts all the pieces together at once. Judy saves the day!
All right, besides that, I liked how the film was willing to let scenes get a little dark and dangerous. Nick's childhood trauma, the feral sequences. There was also some really good vocabulary being used! Especially in the opening school-play scene. I wonder how many of the words flew over the heads of the 4-to-7-year-olds in the audience, but I'm all for exposing people to cooler and more erudite words.
Another thing that me and my friends noticed, with all the 4-to-7-year-olds in the audience, the crowd didn't seem to have any huge moments of laughter. Don't get me wrong, we were all amused and enthralled – it's just that for the most part, it seemed like happy chuckling and little titters here and there, sometimes with tugged heartstrings, all at appropriate moments. The entertainment value felt happily level, but nothing ... how do I put it ... "swept"? I do remember a communal groan of sympathy when Judy was in the dumps and opened her microwave dinner.
Great ending gag!
Design and music
There was so much to see on the screen, this is going to be one of those movies to freeze-frame on the Blu-ray release to see all the details. When Judy first arrives in the city, travelling through the different districts was a great way to introduce it all, and there were still surprises to be had as the film went along. A lot of the larger structures had a sort of organic look that sat well with me. And I think all the door handles were lever-style? Not sure about that. Loved how the city managed to operate with animals who exist in quite a range of sizes.
Music-wise, nothing especially stood out, but it accentuated the mood nonetheless. Subtle work there! I do remember the sloth short (released before the film) had a little music that wasn't present in the final film. I missed that; I thought it helped the scene. And no one breaks into song. Hooray!
Okay, for those of you wanting more of the naturalists' club or the tiger backup dancers, what you've seen in the trailers is pretty much it, plus a few really quick extra shots, nothing fancy. The song by Gazelle/Shakira is the last thing in the film, and serves as a dance-party ending that also works as the start of the closing credits. There's no stinger to wait for at the end.
There's a van with some art on the sides that might draw some furry attention. Macro/micro fans will enjoy a chase through the district of Little Rodentia where everything's on a much smaller scale. Babyfurs will like the scenes from the character's childhoods (mostly), and a wanna-be baby elephant (briefly). For Canadians, Peter Moosebridge barely has any lines, sorry about that. Fan-fiction writers are going to ship Judy and Nick, naturally. Oh, and Priscilla is totally giving Flash the eyes.
I try to stay away from merchandizing, but before the film I wandered by the Disney store in the neighboring mall and saw a little stand set up at the front. It had some Nick and Judy plushes, some little plastic figurines in a display case, what looked like some toy police cars that appear only very briefly in the film, and some little round fuzzy things that looked kind of knitted ... I have no idea what those were. I'm sure there's tons more merchandise than that.
The big furry question is, of course, "Is my favorite species in it?" Well actually, after the film my friends and I had a discussion about what we didn't remember seeing. Problem is, we all caught different things and couldn't trust our own judgement. Offhand we don't remember domestic cats, dogs, horses (but there are zebras), avians, reptiles, primates ... basically it's going to be a case of having to watch for little things in the background.
The film focuses on its main characters: rabbit and fox, plus the secondary characters who get little moments: cape buffalo, cartoony sheep, and a couple of others. I don't remember if background stuff was in-focus or not, like in the army scenes of the Narnia films: a lot of the cool fantasy creatures were kind of milling around on the sidelines of the shots.
I remember that years ago, I was in a low, cynical furry mood, and when I went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox, I felt replenished with a warm happy fuzzy feeling. Like my inner furry tank had been filled back up - like the tanks in Monsters, Inc.
I think Fantastic Mr. Fox is still my go-to, feel-good furry movie, although it's not without its flaws, and I know Wes Anderson's style is definitely not for everyone. (Me, I have a very strange sense of humor.)
Regardless, I think Zootopia will become many furries' go-to, feel good furry movie. Remember what I said about Disney marketing happiness? Lots of that, plus rubbing-your-eye moments depending how mushy you are. I'm semi-mushy. Story-wise I don't think it's anything remarkable, but the visual design is at its best, and I would definitely recommend seeing it on a big screen. It's fun, it's furry, how can you go wrong with that?
Once it becomes available for home viewing, if you really want to have an adventure in mood swings, watch the film Gattaca, which is like its cynical, dystopian adult science-fiction equivalent. And then watch Zootopia to feel all happy and fuzzy again.