Digesting Zootopia

On one hand, I loved the film.  I was thoroughly entertained throughout the picture, the way the story unfolded was fantastic — so glad they followed through post-solution of the mystery.  Oh yeah, and it was distinctly  not a Disney film.

It was, yet it wasn’t.  Animation: top notch.  As always with Disney or Pixar, I’m seeing plenty of articles flooding my screen about how “Disney went the extra mile to achieve realistic fur” or “such and such was inserted here for authenticity purposes.”  Cool, great, that’s what Disney does: push boundaries, animate in technologically innovative and fascinating ways.  They’re so good at it, I’d be a little let down if that hadn’t happened.

On top of that, what we have here is some of the greatest character animation of the Second Disney Renaissance.  The life in these characters sits up there with those from DumboPinocchio,  and the package films like Saludos Amigos and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, though let me be clear, I’m not drawing analogies between the two eras (We’ll get into why I don’t like the Robin Hood comparison later).  The Disney animators did a fabulous job getting back to expressive motion in this film, something that subtly elevated Tangled over Frozen in my mind.  So with respect to animation (and on a blog titled “animation connection,” why would we care about much else?), Disney film. All. The. Way.

Now the subject: Disney-ish?  And that’s not entirely a bad thing.  This is very much a product of Lasseter, Catmull, and the Pixar team overhauling Disney animation.  Of course, that’s not to say this is a Pixar film either — it plays by too many conventional genre and cinematic expectations to fit that auteur style that has been stamped on the Pixar product since the late 2000’s (and dwindling away fast).  As a follow up to Frozen, it contrasts heavily with that picture’s princess territory.  It’s a different contrast, though, than Wreck-it Ralph had with TangledRalphthough ambitious and different, follows a traditional storyline that has been played out in a number of other Disney films where the protagonist re-evaluates his goals in his journey — think Emperor’s New Groove.   The film achieved a fresh spin on this by simply reversing roles where the “bad guy” became the “good guy.”  I don’t at all mean to take away from Ralph, it was a fantastic film, but I want to show there was more to Zootopia‘s deviation from the formula than there has been before at Disney.

Zootopia may be a little on the nose for some, but perhaps that’s because of the current tensions in our culture’s racial climate.  The film actually does a fantastic job of sliding applicable lessons into its story for both adults and children, teaching each audience about stereotyping and bullying at the same time.  It’s an extremely difficult task to accomplish, and the film does this well.  The messages of acceptance and positivity stand distinctly apart from the more generic themes present in Disney’s more recent efforts, because these apply so directly to our society today.

It aligns with Looney Tunes, however, in its cultural references.  This film will be practically a time capsule in the future, which will unfortunately quickly date it.  That’s not to say it can’t be timeless, for many of us today enjoy watching 80’s movies, even if the girls are wearing leg warmers.  Let’s note though, that jokes referencing “Breaking Bad” and other current pop culture touchstones will be lost on later audiences much like they are in Looney Tunes (imagine how much is detracted from “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” when audiences don’t get Daffy’s direct and indirect references to Errol Flynn).

As for Disney’s own view on it, I really dislike their effort to characterize it as a return to the style of their classic pictures.  This a) defeats the respect we can give it for being so different thematically from everything else in the Disney canon, and b) really isn’t a return to anything they’ve done.  Sure, Reitherman’s Robin Hood might have been a jumping off point, but don’t publicize that.  Your animation style does not even remotely follow that 1960’s-70’s era.  As much as I’d like to see at least one hand drawn picture to accompany every 5-7 CG films (I know it isn’t cost efficient, but Pooh was so refreshing in 2011), accept your style and promote it.  The rough, unkempt lines of Robin Hood is that generation’s thing, make jaw-dropping world building and unprecedentedly fluid character movement your thing.

Zootopia was an impressive deviation from Disney’s norm, and their previous recent films have been preparing audiences for this.  It blends a traditional dedication to character animation with the current demand for world-building and messages of diversity.  It will probably get weighed down in the future by it’s reliance upon culture in 2016, but let’s hope Judy Hopps can stay as entertaining as Bugs Bunny 75 years down the line.

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