Friday, March 4, 2016

Movie Review: Zootopia

Do you like animation? How about great films?

If you answered "yes" to either of those questions, this is where you stop reading. Because I've got very little to say about this movie that isn't a spoiler, and you're better off seeing this with as little information as possible. This is a stellar movie, and I'd honestly prefer you discover why for yourself.

If you're not sold, feel free to keep reading, but - fair warning - I'm not holding back. Otherwise, save this and all other reviews until after you've seen it.

Alright. I'm going to assume everyone still reading has either seen Zootopia or is waiving their rights to be upset when I give away the major plot twists. Only I'm not going to do that, because - while I think the movie had a good story - it's only tangentially connected to why it's worth everyone's time. I am, however, about to spoil the theme, and believe me: that's a bigger deal.

On the surface, Zootopia is set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. More specifically, mammals - we never find out if there are cities of talking birds or lizards, too (maybe in the sequel). Or, hell, maybe this is secretly in continuity with Ducktales or Tailspin or something: those definitely feel like the prototypes Zootopia is working off of.

But this isn't Duckburg: this is a nuanced, complex setting with very real problems. The movie is full of jokes, the majority of which are fun and well executed. And, honestly, I kind of wish they'd gone through and cut every last one of them out. Because while the movie is funny, its core isn't comedy. This is a story of systemic and unconscious racism in law enforcement, politics, and culture at large. It's about bias, privilege, and fear.

It's almost impossible to watch Zootopia in 2016 and not draw parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement: this digs beneath the surface to explore the reasons why well-meaning police officers may find themselves reacting differently to the same behavior from people of different races. Likewise, it's not hard to see similarities between the political fear-mongering of the movie's villain and Donald Trump's speeches. It's easy to forget that this was written three years ago. But then again, it works just as well as an allegory for profiling of Muslims in the name of the War on Terror, decades of law enforcement disproportionately targeting minorities in the drug war, or countless other examples you can dredge up from human history.

What's perhaps most impressive is the way the movie unveils its theme. The film's protagonist is a rabbit trying to be the first of her species to join the police. We follow her as she fights to achieve her goals, despite being told her whole life it's impossible for someone like her to join the force. We believe that she's the underdog, that she's persecuted and held back.

And, in a way, that's true. But rabbits are herbivores, as is ninety percent of the population. Predators, on the other hand, are a small minority, and they're commonly feared and shunned by others. Society treats them differently without noticing. When a rabbit gets upset, it's seen as a normal reaction, but when it's a lion, they're seen as dangerous.

At first, there's a connection between the two situations, as if the opposition to a rabbit becoming a cop is the same problem faced by the predators. But, just as quickly, the movie exposes this as false equivalence. A majority that is afraid and has a manufactured sense of persecution can do horrible things. This is the point of Zootopia, and if it succeeds in teaching that lesson to eight-year-olds, maybe the next generation will be smart enough to see something like Trump's hate speech for what it is.

This is an astonishingly good movie. But if you've been to Rotten Tomatoes recently you probably already figured that out - it's at 99% positive right now. The movie melds numerous genres together, but the dominant inspiration is a 70's/80's cop drama. One of my biggest complaints from the trailer was that the culture was modernized, a decision that will eventually date the movie. But I can see now it was the right choice - this had to be set now, because this is happening now.

I've got a handful of issues with various elements, including some reservations with the pacing of the ending, but... I just can't pick at this thing. It's too good, too smart, and too important a film to waste time with trivial details.

I honestly hope no one who hasn't seen Zootopia made it this far, but just in case, I'll say it one more time: go see this movie.

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