Review – It’s A Jungle Out There! (“Zootopia”)

When you have an entire world populated by nothing but animals, you can expect the unexpected. Not a Pixar animated feature film this time around; this is directly from the House of Mouse’s animation studios and boy! This is just as fun, as inventive, and hilarious as anything made by the guys in Emeryville.

 Zootopia is the name of the humongous metropolis where our story is set, teeming with anthropomorphic clothes-wearing animals in townships like Sahara Square, Tundratown, Little Rodentia, and the Rainforest District. Our hero, Judy Hopps (voiced by TV’s Once Upon A Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin), is an ambitious, never-say-die cute little bunny who, through sheer perseverance and determination, is the first bunny to join the ZFD (Zootopia Police Force). But, being so small, her boss, water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), assigns her traffic duty. Bummer. On her beat she meets up with a street-smart, wise-cracking con man… er, fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who scams her but good.

But things are not well in Zootopia and adjacent towns; several predatory animals are mysteriously missing and even Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) and his sheepish little assistant, Dawn (Jenny Slate) are pushing the ZFD to find out what’s going on. After capturing a weasley little thief (Alan Tudyk), Judy volunteers to find one of the missing animals, a Mr. Emmet Otterton (a sly Muppet reference), but finds she’s way in over her head, as she’s only given 48 hours to crack the case or else she’s fired!

Out-conning Nick and coercing him, she uses his connections in town to track down clues to Emmet’s disappearance. This leads to one of the single funniest moments in the movie: a trip to the local DMV, which is all sloth employees! Being a retired DMV employee myself, I found this hilarious! Anyway, the clues lead to another hilarious moment: meeting Mr. Big (a tiny Godfather-talking shrew voiced by Maurice LaMarche), and then locating a jaguar who is in hiding for fear of the ‘night howlers’. Who or what are they?

More clues lead to an off-the-grid abandoned facility and a sinister plot to resurrect the killer instinct in all the predators of Zootopia. But who’s behind all this and why? Just as you’d imagine, Judy and Nick start off as not-so-friendly adversaries, but slowly bond with other, later becoming BFF’s. You can clearly see that coming, but the real magic here is the overall screenplay written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston. Not a watered/ dumbed-down kiddies story here, thank God! A very cool, adventurous, emotional, funny, intriguing, and real twist-turning detective story interlaced with a very funny animated film that throws many sight gags at the screen. Check out the bootleg DVD’s being sold on the street!

Visually on par with the Pixar generation, it’s just as stunning and leaves you wanting more. Directed by Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-it Ralph), with a co-directorship by Jared Bush, the action is fast and loose and sets the bar far above the normal kiddies fare. Not to say children won’t dig it; but the story, like a Blacklist or NCIS episode, is so interesting I doubt they’ll really enjoy the complexities of it and stick with the bright colors and silliness of many the characters. Zootopia is very reminiscent of another favorite of mine, The Incredibles; a damn fine script with amazing animation. I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. 

        
Animal Farm (1954)
*

*

A utopian society of nothing but animals? Sure it could happen! Author George Orwell, who dolled out another great novel in 1984, gave us this diabolically crafty book that was required reading in high school. Animated into a creepy film in 1954, I’d like to see Disney try and make an animated film outta THIS!

Narrated by Gordon Heath, we see peaceful Manor Farm which has fallen on hard times, thanks to the slovenly drunk owner, Mr. Jones. One night, Old Major  (the oldest boar there) calls all the animals on the farm together for a meeting and tells them the humans are parasites and encourages the animals to break free from their tyrant’s influence. He dies in mid-revolutionary song much to others horror. When Jones gets up the next morning and neglects to feed the animals, they retaliate with Napoleon the pig leading the way, kicking Jones off his own farm!

Renaming it “Animal Farm”, the animals set about a new society with the pigs in charge, due to their superior intellect. The Seven Commandments of Animalism are written on a wall of the barn to guide their new community with the seventh, “All animals are equal”, being the most important. Snowball the pig attempts to teach the others while Boxer the horse works tirelessly for his ‘comrades’.  But a real power struggle between Napoleon and Snowball occurs and Snowball, who only wants whats good for his fellow comrades, is pushed aside and killed by Napoleon and his lethal dog assassins.

The others animals live in fear, but are calmed by the optimistic word of Napoleon’s chief PR pig, Squealer, whose incredible and moving speeches can convince anyone to do anything… even trading crops and goods with other farmers for booze for the pigs! Only Benjamin the donkey sees the truth, but who listens to a donkey? In the end, all the sacred Seven Commandments get altered, the animals are far worse off than they ever were, and Benjamin starts to hallucinate; are the pigs turning into humans?

Adapting Orwell’s book into cartoon form was a trick one, but five writers (Joy Batchelor, John Halas, Borden Mace, Philip Stapp, and Lothar Wolff) managed to  pull it off with Batchelor and Halas directing the oddly stylized animation. The parallels to communism are everywhere and meant to be so, even with a bunch of barnyard animals running around. Okay, so there aren’t any “voices” of the pigs, dogs, horses, etc. like in other animated films (or like in the book where they all speak). The characters grunt, whinny, and bark, while the narrator explains the story and, surprisingly, it’s quite effective.

There was a live-action version with Jim Henson’s puppetry in 1999, that included the vocal talents of Peter Ustinov, Patrick Stewart, Pete Postlethwaite, Kelsey Grammer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Ian Holm. It truly sucked, taking major liberties with the book and ruining the entire structure of the story. In 2012, a digital version was announced with mo-cap master Andy Serkis as its director. Haven’t heard a thing about that yet.

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