Friday, March 4, 2016

Zootopia: A menagerie of fun

Zootopia (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.16

I’ve said it before: Many of the best scripts these days are attached to animated films.

Disney’s Zootopia is work of subversive genius: an enormously clever project that functions both as a charming, suspenseful and even exciting adventure, and as a compelling parable of tolerance and inclusion. Its arrival in theaters today could not be more perfectly timed, given the current state of this country’s social fabric.

Hoping to track down a license plate that'll lead to a key suspect, and with time of the
essence, Officer Judy Hopps is forced to deal with a sluggish DMV clerk misleadingly
named Flash, much to the amusement of the foxy Nick Wilde.
Pixar’s Wall-E was pretty sneaky, in a similar vein, with respect to its strong environmental message about the need to be better stewards of planet Earth. But Zootopia is even more pointed, without really seeming that way. Rarely has a moral gone down more easily, or more enjoyably.

I’m reflexively wary of screenplays that credit multiple writers, since too many cooks generally spoil the soup. But executive producer John Lasseter’s success in fine-tuning by committee definitely pays off here: This film’s eight (!) credited writers have delivered a savvy, witty narrative that flows smoothly from one scene to the next, carefully developing numerous character dynamics, and building to a delightfully satisfying conclusion.

Even the small stuff is handled well. Following Chekhov’s maxim that every memorable element in a story must be necessary and irreplaceable, we get a thoroughly satisfying payoff — during this film’s climax — to a cute bit in the first few minutes: something that you’re likely to dismiss as a throwaway giggle, until its resurrection. That’s the hallmark of skillful scripting, and an excellent indication of the meticulously crafted care that has gone into this project.

Better still, all these elements are chaperoned with similar skill by co-directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush.

Our saga takes place in an alternate universe where all the other members of God’s mammalian kingdom have evolved to control their world. (In other words, no people.) As explained during a school play prologue featuring a young and irrepressible bunny named Judy Hopps, their society has evolved beyond the traditional roles of predator and prey, so that all animals co-exist peacefully, and with the belief that no matter what your species — from the largest elephant to the tiniest shrew — you can become anything your heart and dedication desire.

Even so, the unspoken reality is that larger and more powerful animals (“predators”) generally are viewed as higher-class, and possess esteemed and politically controlling careers. Lower-ranking mammals — particularly smaller herbivores (“prey”) — remain a lesser group, consigned to farming or blue-collar livelihoods, and often are looked down upon ... despite being the majority of the overall population.

Taking the notion of inclusion as a birthright, Judy wants to buck this trend by becoming a police officer. (Peaceful coexistence doesn’t deter the criminal behavior of the usual bad elements.) That’s quite a challenge, because the massive central metropolis of Zootopia never has hired a bunny to a constabulary force composed of big, burly animals such as elephants, hippos and rhinos.

But once grown up (and now voiced to perky, unyielding perfection by Ginnifer Goodwin), Judy embraces the rugged academy training course, refuses to back down, and graduates at the top of her class. This delights glad-handing Zootopia Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons, at his blustery best) and assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), who as the proverbial lion and lamb, have championed the current diversity regulations designed to encourage just the sort of ambition Judy possesses.

Alas, Judy’s new commander — Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, in full growl), a tough cape buffalo with plenty of attitude — isn’t nearly as open-minded. Politics may have saddled him with the diminutive Judy, but that doesn’t mean he has to respect her. Ergo, she gets stuck with meter maid duty.

While defiantly proving that she can write more traffic tickets than anybody else, Judy encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly fox with the silver-tongued charm of a veteran con artist. The fresh-off-the-(carrot)-farm Judy initially gets suckered, to a minor degree, but recovers quickly.

Ultimately, Nick is more or less forced to help the plucky bunny play detective on a case that Chief Bogo is certain she can’t solve, which will give him the excuse to fire her. It’s a missing-persons situation, with the distraught Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer) pleading for help in locating her husband, who has vanished quite uncharacteristically.

The subsequent search for clues leads to all sorts of interesting characters: Yax (voiced with hilarious, mind-altered fuzziness by Tommy Chong), an enlightened yak who runs the Mystic Springs Oasis naturist club, where animals need not wear clothes; Manchas (Jessi Corti), a jaguar chauffeur who acknowledges giving Mr. Otterton a ride, and insists that the initially timid otter suddenly erupted into a dangerously bestial rage; and underworld kingpin Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), a tiny arctic shrew who, in a hilarious riff on Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, controls Zootopia’s criminal element.

Things get even more interesting when Judy and Nick uncover a mystery that threatens Zootopia’s long-established status quo, with a result that feels uncomfortably close to the behavior of some of our real-world political bullies and would-be racial exclusionists (a thematic parallel that obviously is intentional).

In a way, the engaging storyline is a distraction. Although we’re completely involved with Judy, Nick and their quest, paying attention to them makes it harder to concentrate on the wealth of detail and sight gags crammed into every new setting. This film is an embarrassment of visual riches, and each of Zootopia’s “habitat neighborhoods” — ritzy Sahara Square, frigid Tundratown, the sheep-laden Meadowlands, the Australian-styled Outback Island — is laden with droll and climate-specific riffs on our human-society businesses and behavior.

Judy’s bullet-train journey through the outskirts of Zootopia, granting our initial glimpses of the various habitats, is a marvel of editing and animated production design.

Needless to say, this film demands repeat viewing ... and I doubt that twice will be sufficient.

Some of the incidental set-pieces are fall-on-the-floor hilarious, such as Judy’s pursuit of the bag-snatching Duke Weaselton (Alan Tudyk) through the diminutive “tiny rodent town” that exists at the center of Zootopia, and where our heroic bunny — usually the smallest creature in the room — finds that she towers over buildings.

Funniest of all, though, is Judy’s trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where she hopes to trace a license plate number with the help of an attendant. In a characterization that likely won’t be appreciated by our real-world DMV employees, their Zootopia cousins are all three-toed sloths who move ... and ... talk ... at ... the ... speed ... of ... snail.

Judy winds up dealing with the department’s so-called fastest sloth, Flash (Raymond S. Persi), whose behavior is uproarious. The comic timing worked into this sequence is sheer genius. (Frozen voice actor Kristen Bell pops up briefly as Priscilla, Flash’s office mate.)

Nate Torrence also is quite droll as Clawhauser, a corpulent, donut-chomping cheetah who works as the police radio dispatcher.

In terms of getting maximum mileage from a voice talent, though, Bateman absolutely steals the show. His Nick is richly condescending, relentlessly smug, and obviously the smartest, sharpest creature in the city. Until Judy comes around, that is, at which point he finds himself increasingly outwitted, outmaneuvered and (forgive me) outfoxed.

Bateman makes Nick an impressively nuanced character, and the actor’s expressive subtlety truly sells the fox’s reluctant embrace of a higher ethical calling. Perhaps. Maybe.

Michael Giacchino’s lively orchestral score is fun, ferocious and even frantic at times: a perfect complement to the on-screen action.

In a word, Zootopia is a marvel: another blend of perceptive writing, dynamic storytelling and visual extravagance on par with Inside Out. And Up. And How to Train Your Dragon. And Wall-E. And Arthur Christmas.

Animated films truly do get some of the best scripts.

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