Saturday, 19 March 2016

Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)



It’s Disney time again! It’s also discussion of modern-day racism time again! … I can’t be alone in thinking that these two shouldn’t be together. Sure, teaching kids from an early age that discrimination be bad is always good, but when directly dealing with racist attitudes, it tends to get a lot more complicated than even the more intelligent filmmakers give it credit for. Yeah, treating someone differently because of their skin colour is pretty basic stuff, but then there’s the continuing discussion about the root of such things. Hell, the word ‘racism’ seems to wildly vary in terms of definition, some attributing more direct labels to it than others. Now to add Disney to the mix and, while I give them all the goddamned credit in the world for making something as poignant as Inside Out, their habit of Disneyfying complex issues is well on record by this point. I mean, one of the last times they looked at racism was with Pocahontas and… well, let’s just say that ‘surface level’ would be putting it very generously. But, given how the world has decided to heap on the praise for this film’s approach on the subject, I figure looking into the background of its depiction in family films was worth delving into first. If for no other reason than to set myself up for a fall in case it should happen; in the name of Katzenberg, I hope I’m wrong. This is Zootopia.

The plot: Rookie cop Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) has taken up a new post in the sprawling metropolis of Zootopia, where predators and prey live side-by-side in harmony. However, it seems that a series of animal disappearances has the police force confounded, with Judy being given two days to track one of them down or lose her badge. Enlisting the help of crafty con artist Nic (Jason Bateman), she soon uncovers a conspiracy that could tear the city apart.

As is to be expected from a production under the flag of the Mouse, the cast list here is pretty damn good. Goodwin, whom I only know from her turn in last year’s Tinker Bell And The Legend Of The NeverBeast, does a really good job as our lead, showing off never-ending energy without coming across as grating in any way. That is a feat, even for the legends of the industry. Opposite her is Bateman, who uncharacteristically manages to portray several different varieties of cool as the literal sly fox, while balancing it with some serious tear-jerkers. His chemistry with Goodwin is just that good that I legitimately tune in to a regular TV series featuring these two. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If Planes gets another installment and this doesn’t, I will lose all respect for Disney. Again. Oh wait, they’re already working on a Cars 3… ugh. Let’s keeping talking about the good stuff before I fall into yet another deep depression. Idris Elba will always be an appreciated voice to hear, and his turn as Chief Bogo manages to work despite the clichéd police chief characterization plastered onto him. J.K. Simmons nails authority as Mayor Lionheart, an unexpected Tommy Chong as naturist Yax is all kinds of fun and Shakira as the pop star Gazelle successfully made me not want to vom my guts up at the sound of that unearthly shriek of a singing voice. Probably the only weak point in the cast is Nate Torrence as Officer Clawhauser, and I’d attribute that to how annoying his character is as opposed to the annoyance of the actor in question.

As the film starts up, have to admit, it doesn’t look good. Going into this film, knowing how lauded its depiction of racism is, it’s more than a little disheartening to see it be this... shallow. It’s all rather surface level, hugging every cliché that it passes as if they were trying to make this story feel as played out as possible. I mean, the film literally starts with a small-town girl trying to make it in the big city as a rookie police officer, complete with all the “You’ll never make it in this town” that could possibly be uttered. This isn’t helped by not only Disney’s apparent love-affair with puns and their need to reference their earlier works (They explicitly reference Let It Go in one scene, for crying out loud), because God forbid we move past that crutch at some point, but also by how the depiction of racism is handled. Okay, standard glaring stuff with them saying that bunnies never become police officers, with a very hefty air of stereotyping carried on throughout. For as much as this film apparently wants to break down cultural stereotypes, they sure do like dipping their hands in the same pool while they’re at it. Just look at the different animals used as news co-anchors in one scene, using a different one for different releases in different countries: Koalas for Australia, Tanukis for Japan, Pandas for China, etc. And then there’s the big conspiracy, which without getting into spoilers is complete bunk. After they give a rough estimate that the city is made up of 90% prey and 10% predators, the aforementioned prejudices towards Judy start to wear down a bit as the film seems to be losing focus of its own message.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought to begin with. But then, as the film went on, it actually began to dawn on me what the film was actually going for. The reason why those prejudices were wearing thin was because I was making the same mistake that far too many people make and focusing too much on the labels attributed to people: Bunnies, foxes, predator, prey and what have you. Instead, what makes this film’s look at racism and prejudice work as well as it does is due to the fact that it completely negates the importance of labels: Prejudice is prejudice, regardless of who it is done to and who is doing it. Every character in the film, either in stark reality or just through casual racism, jokes (which kind of sabotage the film’s point just a touch but not enough to make it worth scorn), is a victim of some form of prejudice ranging from the banal to the outright heart-breaking. I guess my own preconceptions going into this were somewhat shaped by the fact that this kind of discussion about racism, where the focus is placed on the actions rather than the people who do them, is exceptionally rare nowadays. Hell, the closest we've gotten to this even-handed a portrayal of racism in recent years was with last year’s Dear White People, a film that I’m lucky even got released over here at all. There’s a bit of lip service given to some older, more shocking forms of racism from our own history: People being accused of being feral because of their ancestry and/or biology? Don’t even need to look that far back for those same accusations to be thrown at minorities the world over. Insert your own Donald Trump joke here, because I frankly don’t give a rat’s ass what he has to say on anything. And even while the humour can get a bit off-putting, the aforementioned puns are far less distracting than they have been in other Disney productions (looking at you, Cars/Planes) and the jokes come from genuine places that help keep the story afloat. The fact that they managed to make the sloth scene as funny as it is, even on repetition, is a testament to that alone.

All in all, my own initial misgivings about the story aside, this is a remarkably mature and nuanced look at the concept of racism, buoyed by a winning sense of humour and a cast list that stands up to Disney’s pedestaled standards. Preconceptions of dumbing down be damned, rather than talking down to its audience on the subject, it breaks it down to its barest elements and shows that, regardless of labels attached to it, prejudice shouldn’t be tolerated. To portray that kind of moral, especially in a family film, shows that Disney well and truly hasn’t slowed down at all. It’s better than The Revenant, as this doesn’t have a moment where the action drops below the baseline; not even during the scene with the sloths that manages to transcend merely being slow into being cringingly hilarious. However, out of respect to two masters of the craft coming together in an outstanding fashion, it ranks just below Steve Jobs.

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