By Friday night, I began to hear it. “Zootopia is incredible!” “Zootopia is better than Frozen!” “Zootopia will be the best movie of the year!” Hyperbolic? I thought so. But still, a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes and friends of mine raving about left me excited to see the movie. I went Saturday, watched the film and reviewed it thusly on my Facebook:
“Zootopia: Some great gags string together a pedestrian plot made worse by a grating Shakira sountrack.”
You can guess how that went over. Children wrung their hair, friends blasted me in the social sphere, and the sun turned black with ash. But the thing is, the more I talked with various people, the more they actually kinda agreed with me. The indisputable: Zootopia is funny. Very funny. Also, Shakira brings down the film. (I don’t get why John Lasseter has decided that Disney films should have music videos in them …)
The disputed? Whether Zootopia’s plot is a good one or not. You see, I didn’t slam the film in my one-sentence review. I merely wanted to point out how conventional, unsurprising, and, well, normal its plot is. And most people I’ve spoken with agree with me! But we’re in a point in our culture right now – and I’ve written about it before – where people are intolerant of any dissension when it comes to things they enjoy. Fellow Arch City Studio guy Jason Moody succinctly put it when he (jokingly, I think) wrote:
“I like it and you must like it too!!! Like what I like or you are dumb!”
Again, he’s joking. Probably. But he sums up the general fan reaction whenever you write an opinion piece. Anyway, I’m done droning on about the plights of a first world movie critic. Instead, I want to jump to an on-point comparison that Jason had about the film. He compared Zootopia to two other films, Cars and The Good Dinosaur. (notice I’ve now switched to official italicizing of movies, so let’s get serious.) This is an apt comparison as I’ll discuss briefly below, but the crazy thing is that (now) Zootopia has been a big hit, whereas the other two were only lukewarmly received. I’ll take a guess as to why.
Each of these movies features a well-tread plot. This isn’t a bad thing. All stories are derivative of other stories. Yep, all of them. Originality isn’t a thing that exists in storytelling anymore. At least not from the point of “this is a wholly new concept and nothing like it has existed before.” Instead, it’s how a storyteller mixes elements of character, plotting, conflict, ideas and setting to create something new.
As far as stories go, though, Zootopia, Cars and The Good Dinosaur are pretty traditional films from a genre point of view. Zootopia is clearly a “whodunit” buddy cop film (with, by the way, an achingly bad plot contrivance early on in the film that left me cold – sorry, Jason, had to be said!), Cars is a fish-out-of-water story, and The Good Dinosaur is a Western coming-of-age tale. Each film hits their beats perfectly, yet only Zootopia is being hailed as – cough, cough – the film of the year.
Zootopia has approachable, cute characters. Even the elephants and rhinos in this film are pretty adorable. Throw in tiny rodents, plush kitty cats and a FREAKING BUNNY to follow along with and it’s easy to see why this movie is received a bit better than the other two films I’m comparing it to. Cars had redneck four-wheelers. The redneck four-wheelers would go on to be best-selling toys and spawn a sequel, but Zootopia wins hands down. As for The Good Dinosaur? Arlo the dino is a nice … dinosaur, but our other main character is a snarling, dirty child.
Character is simply important in a film, particularly in an animated film where actors’ performances are not as present. The design of animated characters is crucial for a movie’s success. I don’t think all animated films should feature cute, fluffy animals. We’d get bored. But it was a smart move to pair the plot of Zootopia with a world full of them. And that brings me to …
Cars is just as developed of a world as Zootopia. Minutes into the film, you’ve bought the conceit of a land inhabited by sentient vehicles and you don’t ask any questions about it. You just accept it. But then the plot dumps you off into Radiator Springs which is quiet and kinda desolate and you begin to forget that there’s this whole world full of living cars somewhere else. You have rock piles and lonely roads. The Good Dinosaur is even worse in this regard. It is notable how few dinosaurs you actually see in the movie and the world is a wasteland. Zootopia throws a world of animals at you and then doubles down on it, constantly shoving their cute characters at the viewer and using the world’s construct as a source of plot points and jokes throughout. The whole world comes off better for it.
I’m already on record as hating the Shakira-led soundtrack of Zootopia. But I’m sure somebody, somewhere, likes it. Cars and The Good Dinosaur, on the other hand, suffer from a regular Pixar failure – that of uninspiring, forgettable music. (Toy Story and The Incredibles have been the pleasant exception.) Say what you will (and I will) about the Zootopia soundtrack, but it is nothing if not memorable. I’m still having nightmares about it.
Zootopia has been hailed for its timely message. Some have even called it the anti-Trump film. This isn’t the case, as the film was being worked on way before Trump began his campaign, but it is indeed a film with a message that people are wanting to hear right now. The same couldn’t be said last year about The Good Dinosaur, which stuffed its message of family deeper into its coming-of-age plot. Cars likewise fails to separate itself in this regard.
In the end, Zootopia hits on all the right cylinders. I don’t happen to think it’s the film of the year, but many people will and I can understand why. I still get my opinion, but I’m already used to people calling me wrong. (Even more, I happen to really like Cars, so you can guess how long I’ve been told that I’m wrong about things.)
Zootopia Review Score: B
Rotten Tomatoes: 99% | IMDB: 8.4 | Metacritic: 78
Cars Review Score: A-
Rotten Tomatoes: 74% | IMDB: 7.2 | Metacritic: 73
The Good Dinosaur Review Score: B+
Rotten Tomatoes: 76% | IMDB: 6.9 | Metacritic: 66