The Review: Part I
"It's only a movie, folks."
- People's "Picks and Pans Review: Star Wars: Episode I the Phantom Menace", Leah Rozen
Strange, but I guess I always wanted to write movie reviews; I remember thumbing through old People magazines at the barber shop, waiting for my hair to be cut, and skipping to the reviews, searching for movies I'd seen. I don't believe People even runs reviews anymore, but that's where I got my start. Not exactly the best known venue for movie criticism, even when it actually had any. But it's a start.
So, now, Zootopia. Interesting thing happened, waiting for this movie; furries began to caution other furries. Don't get to excited, don't overhype the movie, you'll only disappoint yourself. Which, as always, managed to show up the furry fandom's complete lack of cultural awareness; you don't worry about a relatively small group of people getting excited about a movie when the culture around you is waiting for the next Star Wars movie with something approximating religious fervor. It's not like we haven't already had three (now largely agreed upon as mediocre) Star Wars movies in most of the really excited people's lives already. Furry wise, we've only had one.
But, setting aside the willful ignorance of the world at large (you guys realize its an election year, right?), is this solid advice? Was the hype worth it? Will the anticipation pay off? Can this possibly live up to the expectations? Or is it, after all, just a movie?
This is the first review of Zootopia on Flayrah; another is already in the queue, and we invite all of our regular contributors (and maybe a few first timers) to share their answers to those questions during the following month!
The movie begins with our heroine, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), getting violently disemboweled by a tiger. It's okay, though. She gets better. It's part of a stage play, explaining tigers don't actually do that any more; they're more likely to do your taxes than do you in, and now fully anthropomorphic animals live in peace and harmony around the world, and predator and prey get along just fine.
Anyway, Judy is a rabbit who really wants to be cop; her parents aren't as enthused, and encourage her (if that's the correct term), to not only settle for a life as a carrot farmer, but "settle hard." And, we're already in well worn Disney territory; go out and live your dreams, you can be anything you set your mind to, blah blah blah, yakkity smakkity.
And then the movie takes its first hard turn; after this short prologue, we find Judy as an adult, and she's already accomplished her dream. She's a cop now; in other words, setting aside the prologue, this movie begins where most Disney movies end. Sure, dreams can come true, but what will you do when you have them? Because Judy's dream doesn't instantly bring happiness. She finds herself in a job where her boss hates her, her co-workers resent her, the people she's trying to serve actively berate her, and then, when her day is over, she goes home to a tiny, one room apartment and a microwave dinner for her reward. No Disney princess ever had to cook carrots in a microwave before; when her parents call her using Muzzle Time, she actively and consciously composes her face into a happy expression before answering.
She may be a rabbit, but this is one of the most human protagonists in the history of animation.
Then there's the fox; Judy meets one Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), who manages to con her out of fifteen bucks, belittle her aspirations, her species, her hometown and family, her intelligence and generally make her feel like a giant failure. But this chance encounter becomes much more important when Judy manages to finagle her way into her first case; an otter has been reported missing, along with 13 other predators, and Judy is the only one to notice Nick is one of the last people to have seen the otter.
She tracks him down, turns the table on him, and out-cons the con, forcing him to work with her on the case. Together, they follow a trail of witnesses, clues and other such leads (including naturalist gurus, joke loving sloths and an extended Godfather parody), until they find themselves on the doorstep of a lonely jaguar's home. And the investigation takes a turn.
The story is a pretty straight detective story, and, unlike a lot of actual detective stories, it does provide plenty of clues as to the identity of the villain. Attentive viewers might be able to solve the case before our vulpine and lapine investigators (though genre savvy viewers probably have the biggest advantage). There are plenty of red herrings to keep the audience on their toes. It also contains some genuinely suspenseful thriller elements (this movie does contain, bar none, the single most bloodcurdling scream I've heard in any movie); yes, it is surprisingly dark for Disney.
The furry element of Zootopia is well done; it is obvious a great deal of thought has gone into the movie. The decision was made to keep different animals at different scales, which leads to some truly wonderful visuals. Sharp eyed viewers may notice they do address the issue of "what do the predators eat?" Honestly, though, I don't find that the most interesting question; The Lion King answered that over two decades ago between verses of "Hakuna Matata" ("it means no worries"), and Zootopia's solution is similar (though Nick has a bit of sweet tooth). However, if you really must have a dietary mystery with disturbing implications, here's one; ice cream exists in this world, but where does the cream come from?
The world of Zootopia is very clearly a modern setting; the Godfather references may be dated, but most Godfather parodies don't make fun of people who still listen to their music on CD. Technology is present and important to the plot; a nice detail is how Judy uses her phone as a flashlight to look for clues.
The movie has managed to have different names in different regions, but I think America got the best with Zootopia, because it speaks to the themes of the movie the best. It may be a play on the word "utopia," and our first glimpses of it are as a magical wonderland, but the movie fairly quickly shows that this is no utopia.
Animated movies usually can't be very timely, especially CG ones, where movies are years in production, even more so than your normal live action movie. Which makes the fact that Zootopia nails the moment so hard it might as well be called Zootgeist that much more astonishing. Some might be inclined to think this is just luck, but I'm going to give the filmmakers a bit more credit than most. A lot has happened in the world since Zootopia was announced. I began this review by pointing out that furries aren't always aware of what's going on in the world, but I don't have the heart to inform you if you haven't notices. I'll just say, since 2013, if you are going to do a movie in which the moral of the story is "try not to be so biased, you guys," in which one of the two leads is a cop, no less, you had better not, well, cop out.
Thankfully, they didn't. This movie attacks its themes with all its got. There are some completely jaw-dropping scenes where the filmmakers just go there. This is a movie about bias, not just in the overtly prejudiced, but in the nicest, most liberal, well-meaning people, as well. It isn't just about race either, or even such obvious areas as ethnicity or gender, but other areas, too (when Nick first meets Judy, he's almost as contemptuous of her agrarian, small town background as he is of her species).
The movie also deals in self-critique; Disney is not left out. It's an almost anti-Disney movie; Judy tells Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) she has always wanted to be cop. Bogo replies that nobody asked him what he wanted when she was assigned to him; the movie makes it clear, while Judy is actually a decent cop, she's only here because the mayor of Zootopia is looking to score political points. Bogo then delivers a line that is devastatingly funny, and basically renders the entire Shrek franchise redundant.
The movie does take the "dreams can come true" ethos to task; great, you got your dream job, Judy. That's nice. Nick can't even get a job, period, because of what he looks like. The movie goes so far as to subtly imply that Nick is, in fact, homeless. Say what you will about the ultra-poppy music of "Try Everything", the in universe pop star Gazelle's song (as sung by Shakira in our universe), but lyrically, it's a song about failure.
One final thought, and that's a question of romance; it's not a spoiler to say the movie doesn't end with a spelled out romantic relationship between the two leads. It's not a spoiler because that's just not what the movie is about, but I find it disappointing that this really vague "will they, won't they" relationship (and that may be giving it too much credit) is the closest the movie comes to a mixed species couple. Oh, well, ball's in your court, uh ... Sing? I guess?
In talking of the themes, it's important to point out that, much like the furry aspects, you can't take them out of the movie, which, like the furry aspects, is for the best. The movie has basically the same message as the universally loved Best Picture Crash, except, while Crash was a message disguised as a movie, Zootopia is a movie with a message. There is a difference. Zootopia ain't perfect; a lot of clues basically fall in our heroes' laps. Contrived coincidences do occur. But, you know what, they happen in Crash too, and that movie didn't even bother to have a plot.
That ... perhaps isn't what I wanted to go out on. Zootopia is definitely better than one of the most despised movies of the last decade! Slap it on the poster! Let me try again.
Believe the hype. It really is that good. It's not just another movie, folks.