Sometimes, working at CalArts is a good thing. Like on Thursday.
Co-director Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) held a screening and Q&A session for his latest Disney animated film - Zootopia - which opens in the U.S. Friday. So hey - free sneak preview!
Now, I thought Wreck-It Ralph was excellent, so I was hoping for good things from Zootopia. As the first trailers trickled out for it, the film looked like it would be funny and well-animated, making for a nice, cartoony return to the "talking animals" genre for Disney.
I wasn't really expecting more than that, but I was hoping it would at least be a good, funny, entertaining movie.
And it was. But it was more than that. A lot more.
Zootopia pointedly brings home some ideas in a way that fits perfectly in animation, much in the way the original Star Trek series did. By masking them in the genre, you're entertained, but never beat over the head with "a message". Nonetheless, these ideas do get through, and often in a more effective way because you become involved with and empathetic towards the characters, before you even fully understand why.
If that sounds vague - that's my intent. Because I think that people will get different impressions from this film that will slot into their own experiences. For example, Rich Moore started off his introduction by recounting his time as a student at CalArts, and how the original Disney animators and early CalArts grads who were just achieving success at that time would come and lecture to his class, and how he realized that they were opening up the world of animation to him and his peers, and, in his words, "There was enough room at the table for everyone - even me." That message was not lost on the next generation of animators sitting in that theater on Thursday. There's room at the table for them too, as long as they persevere and never give up on their dreams. Perhaps that sounds a little cliché, but in the context of this movie, it's never treated that way.
This movie has a very big heart, and a lot of emotional impact. It's one of the best animated films I've seen in years. This is the type of film you once expected Pixar to make.
That said, I want one thing to be very clear - this is not an overly-serious movie. But it is an incredibly thoughtful one. Best of all, Zootopia is a funny movie. It's brilliantly funny at times, even poking some most-welcomed fun at Disney itself. While there were certainly emotionally impactful moments in the film, there is always balance. The humor worked on every level, too - visual, slapstick, satire, verbal - the film was packed with it.
The two main characters - Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) - are excellent. Their personalities and relationships drive this film. They have meaningful, heartfelt stories that you want to watch unfold. And they're flawed, too. Genuinely so - sometimes without even realizing it themselves, leading to some truly poignant moments. As for the ancillary characters - there's not a weak one in the bunch. None of them felt throw-away or extraneous, nor overly important given their screen time. They were there to support the main characters, but they never take over the movie from them. The main characters are the focus, and unlike many Disney films, they are the strongest, most likable characters in the film. The film doesn't rely on wacky sidekicks to keep the film moving. (There are plenty of wonderful, funny characters in the film, but they don't overstay their welcome. They serve their purpose well, and get off the screen.)
The main story of the film is about the two main characters. The main plot of the film that the characters are involved with is completely secondary. I was so engrossed in the characters, I effectively didn't really care about how the main plot turned out, except in how it impacted them. While the ramifications of their success or failure were large in scope, I was far more concerned with how it affected them personally. That's good writing.
The animation is absolutely first-rate. This is what an animated film should be - telling a story in a way that's completely unique to the medium, with characters that can only exist in animation. Not something that could just as well be done in live action (or on ice). Again, this is what you would have once expected from Pixar. The animation runs the gamut from broad, physical humor to fast and furious action to the most subtle of emotions. All of it masterfully executed.
Visually, the film looks just right. That may seem like an odd compliment, but what I mean by that is that even though the environments are huge, and varied, and detailed, and clever, and wonderfully designed - they fit the film. Unlike The Good Dinosaur where all of the emphasis was on hyper-realistic environments and Gummi-textured dinosaurs, in Zootopia - everything looks like it belongs. If it calls too much attention to itself, they're doing it wrong. Here, we're treated to an overview of the city at the beginning of the film to enjoy the spectacle of it, and from that point on - it just is. It's the city, and it's where the story happens. That is how you design an animated movie.
Now, I should point out that I saw this in a theater packed full of animation students. And their responses to animated films tend to be heightened. For a truly good film, their responses are wildly enthusiastic. For bad films... well, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of it (they were laughing at The Good Dinosaur in all of the wrong places... not with it). With Zootopia, it was terrific fun to be in the room and hear the laughter and share the joy they had in watching it, and it was clear by some of the comments in the Q&A (as well as the standing ovation Rich Moore received after the film) that the movie emotionally resonated with them as well. Me too.
Apart from a tacked-on end-credits song that didn't really do much for me (I should point out - this is mercifully not a musical), Zootopia is a thoroughly entertaining animated film, up there with the absolute best of the best. It's incredibly funny, genuinely thoughtful, exciting, thought-provoking, uplifting, and just plain fun. A rare combination, and it all works.
Go see it. Twice. Buy extra popcorn. Bring the kids. Buy the Blu-ray when it comes out.
Zootopia gets a 9.5/10.