“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.

An entertaining perp walk to its inevitable credit sequence blooper reel: Let’s Be Cops

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s Be Cops is a throwback to a simpler, sunnier, dumber movie era … and that is not necessarily a bad thing. There was a time, not that long ago, when the summer movie season was not so populated with postmodern irony and self-aware/self-important superheroes. Rather, it was an unyielding series of big, silly, high concept buddy flicks like Shanghai Noon or Bad Boys. (This summer’s 22 Jump Street is the exception that proves the rule.)

Let’s Be Cops has neither the wit nor the budget of any of those films, but it is like their not-so-bright cousin: pleasant and nice to hang out with at the family reunion, but ultimately rather forgettable.

Ryan O’Malley (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) and Justin Miller (Happy Endings‘ Damon Wayans, Jr.) are two friends/roommates who move to Los Angeles to find their dreams after college (Purdue University no less, though both drive cars with Columbus, Ohio license plates – do the filmmakers not know where Purdue is?). These partners in arrested development have hit their 30s and are at a financial/social/life dead end. Think Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion without the whimsy … or the Post-Its.

Their upcoming college reunion for some reason is a masquerade ball (WTF?) which O’Malley mistakenly believes means a costume party. Miller, a video game designer who is developing one based on real-life experiences of policemen, just happens to have two authentic police uniforms in their apartment. So, of course, they wear these costumes to the party, à la Elle Woods’ cringe-worthy bunny outfit in Legally Blonde. Embarrassment ensues when these boys in blue are faced with college classmates bedecked in evening gowns, tuxedoes, and glittery commedia dell’arte masks (again, WTF?).

The cheekiness finally kicks in when the boys, dejected and mortified by their reunion experience and still wearing their cop gear, wander the streets of L.A. and suddenly realize every passer-by regards them with fear, adoration, respect, or some combination thereof.

Expectedly, the power goes to their heads, and O’Malley starts to take it all too seriously, embroiling them both in a gang bust of some clichéd, B-movie Russian mobsters who are harassing the local pizzeria. (‘Cause of course that’s what Russian mobsters in L.A. would do.)

The film has potential to say something interesting about the abuse of power we see among some uniformed officials – certainly (and sadly) a timely concept. What kind of folks are drawn to this profession in the first place. Is this career-choice motivated by noble intent or a power trip or both? The movie’s script isn’t sharp enough to tackle that concept, which, if explored, could have taken this slight though entertaining film to more interestingly satiric comic levels.

However, the movie is fun. That is pretty much all it has set out to be, and that is just fine, aided and abetted as it is by a well-rounded cast. Any time Rob Riggle shows up (though he seems consigned now and forever to play police officers or gym teachers), you know you’re in good hands. Andy Garcia (!) of all people also makes an appearance, as does James D’Arcy, better than he should have been, saddled with the part of a Russian thug whose primary character trait is chewing (and spitting) gum. Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key, playing to his broad comic wheelhouse, is a hoot as a wide-eyed, childlike gangbanger.

The leads (Johnson and Wayans) have great, sparkling chemistry. Johnson, who seems like the love-child of Owen Wilson and Mark Ruffalo, is scruffy and charming in all his sweaty desperation to be somebody. Wayans, as his (somewhat) straight-arrow friend, shows surprising range, given the circumstances. He finds more notes to play than actually exist in the thin script, wringing comic gold as a neurotic fish-out-of-water, who is neither as neurotic nor as out of his depths as he initially seems.

Even its artless title is a giveaway that Let’s Be Cops is not taking itself terribly seriously. For all intents and purposes, this zippy trifle is two hours of two little boys playing dress-up in the backyard. Once the high (low) concept rumbles to life, the narrative is an entertaining perp walk to its inevitable credit sequence blooper reel.


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.