Zootopia (****1/2) preaches effectively (mostly)

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Zootopia – 2016

Directors Bryon Howard and Rich Moore
Screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Idiris Elba, Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Maurice LaMarche

It’s amazing how careful one has to be when letting their kids watch films that are designated for their entertainment. I used to think parents that got all worked up about that stuff were a little nutty. I mean, what is the worst that could happen? Then I watched irresponsible pabulum like The Lorax  and spent the whole film unwinding my kids’ minds from the politically based, backwards thinking and just plain unfunny dreck. Most conspiracy theorists will tell you its the goal of the powers that be to get them young with appealing shiny messages that are subtle and long lasting. The Veggie Tales does a nicer version of this, but really, you know what you are getting with them. They aren’t fooling anyone.

Watching Zootopia, I had expected little. I knew that it was a huge hit about a Bunny that breaks the glass ceiling on Bunnys being on the police force. Okay, a story about overcoming. As long as we don’t get any hidden messages about Hillary, we can proceed.

Things were going fine for the first  13 minutes. We see a young, creative and brave girl fly though child hood, then the police academy and then take a train to the big city on the wings of Shakira’s golden dulcet tones telling our hero, Judy Hopps (Goodwin) to Try Anything. Then she lands in the police house, in front of a happy, jovial, dare I say it, flamboyant officer Clawhauser (Torrence) at the front desk. The conversation takes place and I cringe.

Judy Hopps: [Approaches reception desk where Clawhauser is munching on cereal] Excuse me… Down here… Hi.
Clawhauser: O. M. Goodness, they really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you, you’re even cuter than I thought you’d be.
Judy Hopps: Ooh, ah, you probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little…
Clawhauser: [Mortified] Hoo, I’m so sorry! Me, Benjamin Clawhauser, the guy everyone thinks is just a flabby donut-loving cop stereotyping you.

What is the message that we are supposed to glean from this exchange? We can be offensive just by finding something adorable? Somewhere I feel there is a writer congratulating themselves for what they feel is a “very special Blossom” kind of message. Instead what they did is exemplify why relations between groups with perceived differences have worsened over the last decade. The perception has become the reality, and be careful if you say all lives matter. Because you “…probably didn’t know…”

Do not fret, though. The movie does get better, and the subliminal message they attempt to send either is sneakily realistic or Disney finally stumbled into a logical message to send to impressionable youth. I will leave that for you to decide.

Zootopia continues the improving trend of Disney’s animation (non-princess) division. What is okay with Meet The Robinsons is better with Bolt, is great with  Wreck It Ralph and superb in Big Hero 6. This one falls into the great category. Everything in the story is fresh and alive whenever they take a break from making a point. That is surprisingly often after the low point with Clawhauser.

The artists are careful to render Judy as resourceful and deductive without turning her into a whiz kid with answers for everything. She has to earn her way up. Not because she is targeted for derision, but, her Chief doesn’t care about her inspirational story. She starts at the bottom with everyone and will have to do extra work to get extra credit. That initiative does get her in some trouble for insubordination, but she works it into a deal by raising the stakes.

Along the way she meets a hustler fox named Nick Wilde (Bateman). She gets taken by him, but soon enough she turns the tables and they are working in a partnership that is really blackmail. Their relationship is funny and nuanced, especially with Bateman’s near Downey, Jr.-like ability to speak under his breath.

Their investigation leads them into some funny situations including a trip to the DMV with some stereo-typically slow employees. But instead of stopping for a lesson about not judging, it’s played for some incredible yuks.

Easily the best segment of the story involves Mr. Big, what should by now be a cliched fearsome crime boss. The difference between cliche and inspired though is…well you’ll know it when you see it.

The film goes through the now we solved it / now we didn’t  scenarios. It’s not as annoying as that would normally be, even if it is predictable. There are several characters and nearly every one has an opportunity or two to shine, even Clawhauser.

The best thing is that the bad actors in the end are bad because they use differences to scare the larger voting base into being afraid of the smaller one. Fear, as we know, is the way to get votes these days. Saying someone who scares you is worthy of being scared of is a cheap pandering method that is used now more than ever, unless you’re Libertarian.

Zootopia is a beautiful, funny and wondrous new world, one of many that Disney has ownership of in their world dominance. No one needs to be afraid of this film becoming a franchise. There is more than enough grist to justify the prospect. Judy and Nick make a good team. And it’d be interesting to see what they produce in the future.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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