“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?


img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Are you satisfied with your care? That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do. Big Hero 6

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When I heard that Disney was going to start mining its ownership of Marvel for future animated properties, I admit my blood (unnecessarily) ran to ice water. This corporate marriage of Mouse House and House of Ideas has yielded a remarkable run of quirky and thrilling and poignant live-action cinematic blockbusters, rife with whimsy and adventure. However, the idea of Spider-Man potentially swinging his way through a princess fairytale musical extravaganza gave me pause.

I should’ve known better. These guys aren’t messing around.

Big Hero 6, Disney Animation’s latest offering, based on an obscure Marvel comic about teenagers saving the world in some indeterminate polyglot future world, absolutely sparkles. I was a lone-dissenting voice in my distaste for Frozen, and, while I enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph, I thought it got rather lazy in its final act. However, Big Hero 6 is perfection.

This latest addition to the Disney canon has its feet planted firmly in the superhero genre, and, while comfortably familiar (it is Disney/Marvel after all), it takes the conceit to new humanistic heights. The tried-and-true Disney themes of family and acceptance and kindness and altruism and championing the underdog are all gloriously on display, but they are infused with a hyper-charged cheekiness that we typically only see over at corporate cousin Pixar.

The story relates the life of two loving brothers, who having lost their parents, now live with their aunt (voiced warmly by Maya Rudolph) above a bakery in San Fransokyo. One can only presume at some point in the near future, the Pacific Ocean dries up, with Tokyo and San Francisco inevitably meeting “urban spawl cute” somewhere in the middle. Or something.

Older brother Tadashi is a robotics expert at the local university, and his younger brother, Hiro, equally bright, aspires to join him. They are surrounded by a colorful and sweet group of friends, a United Colors of Benetton with brains and self-awareness. These are misfits for our modern age, open-hearted kids who embrace their intelligence, see the world as a playground of opportunity, and wear the term “nerd “as a badge of honor.

It wouldn’t be a Disney movie, if there were not some tragic death that prompts the narrative to action. Someday someone needs to write a thesis on that inherent dark heart in all the Disney “magic.” Tadashi and his beloved professor Callaghan (voiced perfectly by the always dependable James Cromwell) disappear in a tragic accident, and Hiro and his pals must band together to solve the mystery (and thereby overcome their heartache … paging Joseph Campbell).

And, like any Disney or Marvel film, we are introduced to an instantly unforgettable character – the kind of character who should have absolutely no appeal but who, though the power of design, voice, and script, somehow enters the halls of classic animated sidekicks the moment he steps on screen.

Before his disappearance, Tadashi had invented a medical robot named Baymax, a large squishy creature, one part marshmallow, one part Michelin Man, and one part unadulterated love. Baymax lives to heal, having been designed as a one-stop walking/talking urgent care facility, and his life’s work becomes the central metaphor throughout the entire film … in a way, rather ingeniously undermining the genre. So many of these movies use violence to bring peace, but in Baymax’s case,  his very design (and every intention) is to use peace and love to end violence and heartache.

The film is most enjoyable in its first half, as it establishes the relationships among these thoughtfully drawn characters. It is a rich and diverse cast, and I applaud that the filmmakers are able to offer us nuance and depth for each and every member of the cast in the film’s lean 90-minute running time (with nary a fart joke to be had).

The film also looks gorgeous. As I said, it quite literally sparkles. I don’t know that I have ever seen an animated film, to this date, in our computer-generated era, that is so immersive and so beautiful and so fluid. It is a treat to watch, and likely will benefit from repeated viewings.

AND, don’t miss the lovely animated short that precedes it, Feast (from the same team that crafted the glorious Paperman) – an affectionate ode to animal rescue, the joys of food, and the ability of one little dog to bring a family together.

One of Baymax’s signature lines is the query, “Are you satisfied with your care?” Indeed, this evening at the movies fit the bill. That’ll do, Bay. That’ll do.


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.