I've been catching up on things I missed while they were in theaters: today, we're looking at Zootopia, Embrace of the Serpent, Eye in the Sky, and Green Room.
ZOOTOPIA (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016)
In a weird world where animals are people, but still kind of like animals, a young rabbit from the sticks named Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) resolves to become the first bunny police officer in the big city of Zootopia. Her dreams are realized, but only in the most humiliatingly limited way possible, until she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens to break her animal society apart. With the help of a vulpine confidence trickster and jerkass named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Officer Hops follows her enemies' traces into a labyrinth of despair. And also into a Godfather reference joke, which is, in its own way, likewise a labyrinth of despair.
Seriously: if you cut out the fucking Godfather reference joke, which is an idea that might have even been rejected by DreamWorks (or at least cut down to a length where you don't want to annihilate your whole family and then turn the gun on yourself), Zootopia is a fantastic film, even a great one. And if it had the supreme courage to be bleak, like its most obvious influences had a real tendency to be, then it would be able to stand like a titan amongst Disney's greatest masterpieces, as a reflection of the fallen, unfair world all of us out here in audienceland actually have the misfortune of living in. (Imagine, if you will, that the film just cuts to black, with Hops back on her family farm, about twenty-five minutes before it grinds its gears into a stupid dance party instead.) Of course, to expect such courage out of corporate family entertainment like this would have been a deeply idiotic thing to do—if it needs to be explicitly said, I did not—and so that's why I don't hold it against Zootopia very strongly that when it circles back to the city, it's not just for some closure, but also for a somewhat tacked-on resolution that won't break your heart.
I'll try to be far briefer than usual, for Zootopia is likely the most talked-about Disney film since good old Frozen, thanks to its engagement with the contentious (but, to my mind, mostly common-sensical) progressive politics of our age; the short version is that Zootopia uses funny animals to allude to all the nasty racial (and gender) disparities that still cleave our own dumbassed animal society in twain.
It's both a smart decision on the film's part, and (I can imagine) a somewhat disappointing one to some viewers, that within Zootopia's multitudes there's just no feasible way at all to map any of those real-life disparities onto these fictional characters in anything like a real, logically consistent, one-to-one manner. Instead, whatever injustice the film's referring to in any given moment, with one character, is going to apply to another character pretty soon, and you're like, "Wait, I thought that guy was supposed to be white." Personally, though, I'm going to go absolutely all in on "smart decision": it's a dangerous game to start applying animal characteristics to human ethnicities, and that's why most of the movies that actually do that were made before V-E Day. Your best case scenario: you end up with something like Maus, a comic book wherein its author, Art Spiegelman, is compelled to break away from the story he's telling about his dad's unlikely Auschwitz survival, in order to explain that he's just now realized that his central visual metaphor makes virtually no sense and has been collapsing in upon itself this entire time.
Anyway, Zootopia's animals are animals—mammals, to be a lot more precise—and while the plot itself may hinge upon their being biologically different from another in a few key ways, the production design and animation embrace these differences with their respective whole hearts. One of the film's greatest pleasures is in the exploration of a bizarre and wonderful world, where a whole lot of mammals of radically different sizes and functional capabilities have come to live together for no good God damned reason. Thus is Zootopia is veritable feast for thine eyes—not endlessly inventive, but thrillingly inventive indeed, when it really wants to be.
Better yet, a lot of the animal jokes that necessarily arise out of this situation are, against all expectation, actually pretty funny. (In fact, a lot of Zootopia's plain old jokes are pretty funny, too—most of them are delivered as sarcastic asides by Jason Bateman's dickhead fox in a role that, ingeniously, does not require Bateman to project a brand of physical charisma he doesn't really possess, because the animators can do that for him. Meanwhile, Bateman's vocal talent effortlessly provides all the character's requisite half-credible half-sleaze, along with the more subtle emotions that he has to shade into his interactions with Ginnifer Goodwin's admirably straightforward performance as an admirably straightforward rabbit cop. Now, obviously: Bateman was never going to be quite good enough to redeem the name "Nick Wilde," but nobody would be, because "Nick Wilde" is the name you come up with if your character was a man with a half-decade career in VHS-era porn still ahead of him, before he became a born-again Christian; whereas it is emphatically not the name you would ever come up with if your character was a Goddamned fox, because that would just be a little too on-the-nose and dumb, do you not agree?)
But, seriously, I must say this: there's a scene with sloths—let me just get it out there, okay, it's a joke about the sloths that run the DMV. Here we essentially take a break from that dour race fable entirely—I mean, speaking frankly, it slams into the film at nothing less than a 90-degree angle to its actual message, considering that, essentially, the joke is that this one particular animal species is effectively unable to properly function—but I've got to be real with you here. The gag's infinitely funnier than it has the slightest right to be, especially when it is neither more nor is it less than the joke you already told yourself in your head, when you heard the premise was "DMV sloths." But maybe it's funny because the joke actually isn't "DMV sloths," it's "Christ on the cross, this bit is five minutes long already, and we're still not done with it yet!" It's like those jokes on Family Guy where the point is that they're insanely repetitious and terrifyingly annoying, except, for reasons I can't begin to explain even to myself, it worked for me. At any rate, it worked a whole lot better than that fucking Godfather parody—which goes on even longer than the sloths, if you can possibly believe it.