Movie Review: Zootopia

Movie Review: Zootopia

ZootopiaPoster Zootopia is an idealistic animated movie by Walt Disney Animation Studios that’s neither as frantic as Pixar’s Inside Out nor as deliberate as Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. The strong character-based story unfolds at a leisurely clip and it’s perfect for the family. I found that, with low to moderate expectations, and I admit that I tend to like these mid-range animated pictures such as the delightful Home on the Range, I was pleasantly surprised.

For starters, it adopts an alternate universe approach so Zootopia avoids mixing the mammals with man. Zootopia is a place, like New York City or Los Angeles, or, taken on a larger scale, America. It’s where the world’s furry creatures gather in one big melting pot metropolis. A little female country rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grew up on a farm with hundreds of siblings, with a flair for drama decides early in life that the world is hers to own, as the saying goes. She wants to be a policewoman.

Everyone—her parents, a bully, others—tries to dissuade her, some with good reason. But rabbit girl won’t quit and she grows up to best a butch female police academy drill sergeant’s expectations to make the grade, though it’s only part of what comes off like a gender quota program (and the movie endorses favoritism such as mandated affirmative action programs though not without reservations). Once on Zootopia’s police force, led by a tough police chief (Idris Elba), the petite young adult gets assigned as a meter maid.

Watching everyone underestimate Officer Hopps is one of Zootopia‘s treats, however. This is a girl who, thanks to skilled, colorful animation which is not rushed, obnoxious and splintered into a thousand sound effects, quick cuts and jokes, expresses wonder at the world as she rides into the big city and its exotic and fascinating environs on a train in a bright-eyed (and, yes, bushy-tailed) series of scenes with a catchy pop song (“Try Everything”) by Shakira. Assigned to hand out parking tickets, which she learns isn’t exactly a beloved act of law enforcement, Judy decides she’ll impress the boss with what she figures is outstanding effort and ability. The character is refreshingly more realistic and spirited in her idealism than the usual girl-power archetype.

Of course, she encounters true crime and gets to try and prove herself as a police officer and Zootopia is somewhat predictable and, at its worst, trite. But it is also sprinkled, not overloaded, with clever sight gags (city car service by Zuber, department store Mousy’s, TV news by ZNN), solid storytelling and what to my admittedly amateur eye is consistent and proportionate character and background animation. It’s a world that’s enjoyable to look at and visit for an hour and a half or so. Zootopia is inviting. Because its appeal is at the center of the conflict, rejecting or vindicating the bunny cop’s idealism about this great melting pot as the place to be whatever one wants to be, its look, feel and functionality is part of the plot, not merely a design feature to dazzle an audience. The city is a whole, exciting world.

Its inhabitants include a fox named Nick (Justin Bateman) with whom Judy tangles, fellow cops and city officials, an otter (Octavia Spencer, Black or White) whose husband is missing and various street criminals. Subversively seeded into the plot is Zootopia‘s timely and cautionary theme about being alert to the true dangers of the big city—don’t jump to conclusions; be rational in judging who may be the real predators—with well-integrated sides of redemption, a bit about diversity and what it means to be “brave, loyal, helpful and trustworthy.” There’s a lot to like and take in from my perspective, but not too much, including a film noirish climax at a cliffside castle, a dig at the media’s tendency to distort facts and my favorite bite against a variant of collectivism which is best left unspoiled which shockingly and happily made it past studio self-censors. I wish I could say more but I can’t.

I can say that the villainous line that “fear always works” is neatly and convincingly countered and everything comes around with an end credit sequence which reprises the pop song with panache. I could have done without another nod to The Godfather or the fist bump (note to studios: it’s not 2008 anymore) but none of this feels overdone or crammed down the politically correct tube—on the contrary—which makes Zootopia a cute and furry family diversion. Zootopia‘s electro-song woos the audience to “Try Everything”. If you want to escape today’s emergent American dystopia and feel good, try seeing this movie.

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur


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I’ll probably have to see Disney Pixar’s family-themed The Good Dinosaur again to fully appreciate its artistry. After the manic, disjointed Inside Out earlier this year, and the middling Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But unlike those fragmented movies, neither of which I think are very good pictures, The Good Dinosaur is slow, steady and restrained.

Staying with one character, like Remy in Ratatouille, which Dinosaur director Peter Sohn had a hand in, the action in this coming of age tale unfolds in shifting, occasionally surprising plot points. Evoking classic Disney films such as Bambi and, especially in its focus on the maladjusted character, Dumbo, this is an outdoor prehistoric adventure with strange sojourns, tracing the maturation of an awkward, jittery brontosaurus named Arlo. Arlo’s literally afraid to come out of his shell when he’s born and, being the youngest in a family of hyper achievers, he’s not fast to adapt to the world. It doesn’t help that his brother Buck and sister Libby don’t show much interest in him. His parents aren’t helpful, either. But they’re a farming family in this incarnation of Disney dinosaurs, so everyone’s too consumed by working the land to teach the lad any lessons.

Arlo wants to grow, learn and earn his pride. It just takes him a long time to realize it and the only one willing to make up for the family deficiency in bringing up the rear is the father, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire), one of two actors besides Raymond Ochoa and Jack McGraw as Arlo—the other is Sam Elliott voicing a tyannosaurus rex named Butch—to make a lasting impression as a character, unless you count a grunting prehistoric human boy who bonds with Arlo when the young dinosaur gets lost.

The kid is crucial to the character and plot development.

Apparently written by committee going by story credits, the plot is strange, from dino-farming and herding to bizarre country and western regionalism among the dinosaurs, who variously come off with earsplitting twangs from Texas and clipped talk from Wyoming to Deep South accents in a trio best described as rednecks. Weird subplots and touches can be clever, too, such as a flock of vultures that represent pure religionism (and the religion, subversively, is the weather; hmmm). But these distinct animation and story junctures do not detract from plot and character progression; they generally add to the momentum, leading to a critical character test for Arlo that has less to do with blood, family and trying too hard and for the wrong reasons and everything to do with the supremacy of going by one’s own chosen values.

With flourishes and simple visuals, including the jagged, curving and severe landscape and meteorology of Arlo’s home near Clawfoot Mountain and its lesser twin peaks, Sohn’s imaginative movie is a boy’s story of earning self-esteem through self-reliance in nature and learning to inhabit and command the world around him, whatever dangers may come. It’s not a bad theme, really, and The Good Dinosaur is not a bad movie for kids, and not the same old frenzy of noise, jokes and sermons about sharing or ecology. Though the script sometimes belabors a point, and dinosaurs are depicted as anthropomorphized as you’ve never seen them, it’s as odd a movie as its leading character, which makes The Good Dinosaur sort of endearing and, I suspect, rather enduring, too.

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)


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Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.

Related Articles and Posts

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

Promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BVSPosterThe hype for Hollywood’s first major competition to Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies begins today with the release of a Comic-Con trailer for Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (watch the trailer here). The long trailer is exciting, overblown and sufficiently enticing in terms of generating interest based on plot, character and action.

The new teaser is also relatively conventional. Done in that Wagnernian-operatic, apocalyptic score reminiscent of music for The Omen (1977) that everyone with a big action movie seems to use, certain situational settings and scenes dissolve in and out, introducing main characters and reintroducing those based on 2013’s Man of Steel. This is DC Comics’ entry in the comic book-based movie wars and it looks to be big, bloated and foundational to a huge new franchise for the San Fernando Valley studio.

Featuring Amy Adams (Her) as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, with Diane Lane (Secretariat) as Kent’s mother, Batman v Superman sets the tone by evoking the previous movie, though the teaser is framed primarily by the new character, Bruce Wayne/Batman (controversially cast Ben Affleck), bearing no relation to previous Warner Bros. Batman movies. What else is evident in the trailer is abundant: The Joker, Lex Luthor and other evils are implied as the conflict between superheroes takes shape, this happens as Bruce Wayne is apparently harmed by Superman, who is revered as a god, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) comes into the picture. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) apparently portrays Lex Luthor (“the red capes are coming”) in the trailer’s least successful tease. Jeremy Irons (Casanova) plays Alfred the butler. Laurence Fishburne (Blackish) reprises his role as the newspaper publisher. Holly Hunter (Always) plays a politician. Scenes and subplots appear to include major military involvement, crumbling skyscrapers and possible sidetracks to comics characters for DC Comics’ the Justice League.

Batman v Superman is directed by Zack Snyder (The Watchmen, Sucker Punch, 300), whose record is mixed to bad in making movies and there are already several credited writers. Whether this movie, which is gaining enormous audience awareness based on the social media-driven release of this trailer at Comic-Con, is a flop or a hit depends upon the relevance and coherence of the story and whether Affleck (The Company Men) and other cast members, especially Eisenberg judging by the teaser, pulls off a clean, convincing performance. With a hint of an element of hero worship, at least there’s the hope that Batman v Superman could beat Marvel’s increasingly incoherent, convoluted Avengers series by putting old-fashioned American heroism for justice back on top, though Warner Bros., DC Comics and Snyder ought to consider turning the volume, hype and disclosure of circumstance down, not up, before the picture goes to theaters.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: Inside Out

InsideOutPosterLike Disney/Pixar’s Up (2009), and other recent animated pictures, such as Frozen, Inside Out is muddled. The story of a child’s emotions—joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness—as characters is more of a sketch than a full-length feature.

Inside Out lacks humor. The plot feels forced. Characters are artificial. The ideas upon which the story is based, if one can make out a plot and theme, are dubious. For instance, main character/emotion joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) drives the child character and the entire movie. Is this good? Inside Out, co-written and co-directed by several people, never addresses or answers the question. This is one reason why this is not a kid-friendly movie.

Of course, I said the same thing about Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001) for the same reason. Its animated interchanging of reality and an underworld of evil monsters mixed with good monsters struck me as potentially harmful to a child. I’m not an expert on child development or psychology. But I’ve noticed that Pixar’s movies, with the exception of the intelligent Ratatouille (2007) and the original Toy Story trilogy (1995-2010), tend to get lost in deep, dark and abstract messages that man is doomed in an arbitrary malevolent universe and the best one can hope for is a small slice of decency. Up pairs an abusive old man and a disturbed boy to ordinary effect. Wall-E (2008) is a bleak, depressing account of a machine with human qualities. Even the megahit Finding Nemo (2003) is bland. They each involve innocents, such as children, in chronic peril at risk of extreme danger facing imminent death.

Inside Out, which expands the sameness and spreads it thin, is similarly lifeless. An only child is uprooted from Minnesota, where she plays ice hockey, and moves with her bland, uninteresting parents to northern California, where she has trouble adjusting. Her mother and father, whose idea of parenting is to act out their arrested development with the intonation of an NPR report, approach their new lives with the enthusiasm of filing tax forms. But the family’s barely in Inside Out, which is all about sadness and joy and an imaginary and loud and obnoxious friend (a Jewish stereotype) named Bing Bong. These three, more than the three humans, dominate the plot.

What they do or attempt to do is complicated and tough to follow but it has to do with grasping and trusting emotions—rational thought is reduced to a train, as in train of thought—and restoring the child to a balanced life. Some of the applied and animated ideas, such as tears of joy and seeing a person as whole, are innocuous, fine or better than that. Others, and most, such as values as islands that change in destructive eruptions, are poorly conceived or executed and, in any case, way too abstract and advanced for this type of movie. This is the main problem with Inside Out, which is also remarkably sexist—the girl’s negative emotions are mostly male and the male is treated as a passive tool for female manipulation or sex—and the end product is manic, convoluted and bereft of humor except for a chuckle here and there. The after effect of Inside Out is a feeling I can only describe as hollow, accompanied by the vague, irritating or creeping sense that something is horribly wrong with this movie and what it’s trying to say, do or depict.

The best children’s stories about deconstructing a child’s healthy, proper development, such as books by Dr. Seuss, Fred Rogers’ televised tales on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1949) depict or address the child facing adversity with a strong, playful sense of life, imagination and the idea that one can make sense of the world. Pixar movies increasingly do the opposite. In Inside Out, the child faces adversity with a weak, lonely shrug, little imagination and unidentified, inexplicably conflicting emotions that practically put her at the mercy of an unintelligible world. In this sense, Inside Out is upside down as a movie for kids and those who raise them.