Hotel Artemis (2018)

There was a long period of time where slick crime pictures with deliberately overwritten dialogue felt distinctly like post-Tarantino drivel. The post-Tarantino thriller was a far-too-common manifestation of macho posturing where fresh-out-of-film school cinema bros could indulge in style-over-substance “subversions” of genre flicks – mostly to their own delight. Now that the artform of the Tarantino knockoff is much less ubiquitous, however, it’s evolving into something much more adventurous. Free Fire remolded the overly-talky Tarantino formula into an absurdist meta comedy about how audiences should be feel bad about being endlessly entertained by gun violence. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (embarrassingly) attempted to graduate it to the level of Oscar Bait Melodrama. Neither were nearly as satisfying as the post-Tarantino sci-fi comedy Hotel Artemis, which has evolved the medium into something I never thought I’d see it become: adorable.

Set in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles where Jodie Foster is clearly tired of your shit, Hotel Artemis details a single night of backstabbing, thievery, and bloodshed among chatty, professional criminals. A sprawling cast that somehow includes Foster, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum, Jenny Slate, Sterling K. Brown, Charlie Day, and Zachary Quinto mingles in the titular art-deco-meets-steampunk hotel while a historically massive riot rages on outside. Stray references to a border wall and the exorbitant cost of clean water detail the general state of the decaying, overpopulated world outside, but Hotel Artemis mostly concerns itself with the John Wickian criminal society that walks its wallpapered halls. “Hotel” is kind of a misnomer, as the space these organized, warring thieves occupy is in fact an underground hospital run by Foster: a rules-obsessed nurse who does not suffer fools gladly. She and Bautista, who acts as her enforcer yet fancies himself “a healthcare professional,” struggle to maintain order on this particularly chaotic night at the Artemis. Various criminal members with barely-concealed agendas talk shit & start deadly fights throughout the increasingly bloody night, counteracting the hotel’s intended function as a hospital for critically injured reprobates. As the situation worsens by the minute, Foster seems more annoyed than disturbed, passing off the rules-breaking violence around her as just another busy Wednesday shift, her least favorite night of the week.

Unlike most overwritten, post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this film is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood face, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. Foster & Bautista have the adorable rapport of a local news segment on a raccoon that made friends with a baby elephant. Foster shuffles down the hotel’s hallways with animalistic determination & a distinct old-lady waddle that might go down as the comedic physical performance of the year. Bautista brings the same matter-of-fact line deliveries that are so endearing in his role as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, somehow making lines like “I will unheal the shit out of you” endearingly warm despite the physical threat of his massive body. Even the general rules of the film’s world-building are treated as a kind of throwaway joke. Characters repeatedly exclaim their surprise at the hotel’s existence, claiming they thought it was a myth, despite the massive neon sign that reads “Hotel Artemis” on the building’s roof. The entire film plays like that, casually breaking with logical consistency for the sake of a gag, relying on the easy charm of its cast and throwaway action movie one-liners like “Visiting hours are never” to pave over any jarring bumps in the road. It’s a gamble that totally worked for me, as I watched the entire movie with the same wide, stupid grin throughout.

I don’t know that I would recommend Hotel Artemis for sci-fi fans specifically. Besides shallowly explored concepts like 3D organ-printing & medically employed microbial robots explained in lines like “Yeah yeah yeah, I know what nanites are,” the movie’s genre beats are more consistently defined by its old-timey hotel setting and its clashes between various criminal elements. There’s minimally-employed CGI and even less world-building exposition, so I’m not sure a true sci-fi nerd is going to get the genre payoffs they’re looking for. Similarly, fans of the Tarantino & John Wick aesthetics the movie superficially echoes in its chatty crime world setting are likely to walk away unsatisfied, as the movie lacks the macho energy of either influence (and is better for it, in my opinion). It’s hard to know who to recommend Hotel Artemis to at all, given its bafflingly low critical scores and the fact that I was the only audience member laughing in my theater (for the first time since . . . Spy? Chappie?). The joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the Artemis and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & particular, which means that Hotel Artemis will have surprisingly limited appeal for a movie with this objectively wonderful of a cast. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, though, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time. I hope that appreciation doesn’t take too long, though, as Foster & Bautista’s adorable chemistry in this picture deserves to be recognized as a Cinematic Event.

-Brandon Ledet

Landline (2017)

Obvious Child, the first collaborative feature from director Gillian Robespierre & actor/comedian Jenny Slate, was a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing bomb-thrower of a film. Robespierre snuck a realistic, formally honest drama on addiction & abortion into American theaters under the guise of a safe, by-the-books romcom. Slate’s persona in the film as an aggressively juvenile stand-up comedian made the experience even more sharply pointed, as it at least vaguely mirrored her own life & art. Unfortunately, I cannot report that their reunion for an Obvious Child follow-up is anywhere near that striking in concept. Detailing the lives of a family in crisis in the mid-1990s, Landline sidesteps the deeply personal politics of Obvious Child to tell a much more familiar, universal story. Slate’s natural persona is still allowed to inform her character, but it’s also diluted by a larger ensemble, including turns from indie scene notables John Tuturro, Jay Duplass, and (MVP) Edie Falco. There’s no real hook to Landline the way Obvious Child’s “the abortion romcom” elevator pitch is immediately distinctive, but Slate & Robespierre still manage to extend the fiercely honest sensibilities of their first collaboration into this less thematically confrontational territory.

A frustrated NYC teen (Abby Quinn) struggles with her idealistic sense of home life & self-identity when two dual acts of adultery disrupt her familial structure. Just when she discovers her playwright father (Tuturro) is likely cheating on her eternally stressed mother (Falco), her adult sister (Slate) also begins an affair behind the back of her fiancée (Duplass). The two sisters & their mother form a solid trinity of female perspectives that dominate this narrative, but the heart of the film lies mostly in the teen’s struggle to negotiate the balance between the ideal of honesty and the fact that the truth could destroy someone. She acts out in frustration, turning to recreational drug use & delinquency to enact a sense of control and starting petty name-calling bouts with both her her sister & mother. These insult trades can range from the harmless (“tattle tale,” “irritant”) to the bitterly harsh (“Fuck you, cunt!”), but order is gradually restored to their dynamic as the two romantic affairs naturally work themselves out. Huge, life-changing mistakes are made impulsively & with fervor and the teen at the center of the storm is petrified of repeating earlier generations’ follies at the expense of people she loves. (Honestly, introducing this family to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson would be super beneficial in dispelling her fantasies about the private, romantic lives of East Coast intellectuals). Ultimately, though, familial bonds prove stronger than short-term resentments and everyone emerges a stronger, more forgiving person on the other end.

The most striking choice for Landline, stylistically, is its story’s 1995 setting, which thankfully extends beyond nostalgia markers like floppy discs & Oprah to touch on the historical drug addiction issues & limited forms of communication that shaped the era. The tagline “1995 – When people were hard to reach” is much tidier than the movie’s treatment of internal, familial conflicts of communication & honesty, but at least points to how the setting was integral to tapping into the film’s themes. The 1990s timeframe also allows for a wildly varied soundtrack ranging from Steve Winwood’s embarassing “Higher Love” to The Breeders’ delicate delight “Drivin’ on 9.” You can tell Robespierre employs the same cinematographer as she did for Obvious Child (Chris Teague), since interior spaces in both films visually share a kind of lamp lit intimacy, even if Landline is less thematically aggressive in its treatment of adultery as Obvious Child is in its politically casual look at abortion. There are moments in Landline that register as emotional devastation (“I’m flailing,”) and others that aim for broad, dark comedy (a Jewish character receiving head during a weepy drama about Nazis). The temporal setting & Robespierre’s tendency towards brutal honesty set the stage for both ends of that divide to hit with full impact, although they’re contained in a much more familiar, well-worn story than the one told in her debut.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

I don’t know if I can fully justify enjoying The Lego Batman Movie‘s tongue in cheek meta-commentary on the grim & gritty world of DC comic book adaptations while calling the same referential style of humor lazy & unfunny in Deadpool. It might just be that the jokes in Lego Batman were better written. It might be that the film’s visual craft better carried its dull stretches where the jokes weren’t landing. It might even be that DC is a target that really needs to be parodied in an irreverent, aggressively silly way (considering the gloomy hell pit it’s been mired in since Nolan & Snyder have shaped its modern image), while Deadpool‘s Marvel digs felt more inconsequential. No matter the reason, I felt like somewhat of a hypocrite laughing throughout The Lego Batman Movie for the same exact reasons I shuddered throughout Deadpool. I could try to make an argument that this animated triviality was more sincere or emotionally genuine that that accursed Ryan Reynolds vehicle, but I’ll always be saddled with the feeling of being made a hypocrite by my own sense of taste in this scenario.

One thing I can be certain of in my enjoyment of The Lego Batman Movie is that Will Arnett is brilliantly cast as the titular character; he’s probably the most inspired Batman casting since I first imagined Nic Cage in the role in my own head. Arnett’s naturally gruff speaking voice & leftover Gob Bluth hubris are perfect for the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy. The 2014 Lego Movie was an adorable, infectiously energized pop culture mashup that allowed for all kinds of recognizable characters to share a single screen: C-3PO, Abraham Lincoln, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, etc. Only Arnett’s Batman stood out enough to suggest he could justify his own spin-off, though. As a delivery on that promise, this quasi-sequel does a great job of both delivering more of the same & deepening the self-obsessed gloomy rich boy assholery that defines Arnett’s Batman as a character. He still shares the screen with an impossible array of crossover characters & finds fresh ways to take the wind out of Batman’s egomaniacal sails. We get to see much more of the loneliness, hurt, and grief that makes him such a selfish prick to begin with, however. The movie even opens that world to us without having to indulge in yet another retelling of the origin story sparked by his parent’s death (a restraint Snyder didn’t show in Dawn of Justice, unfortunately). Arnett’s Lego form is such a pure embodiment of Batman that in these reflective scenes of brooding over the past in his mansion & cave, he’s still wearing the costume & cowl. The movie makes his Bruce Wayne persona the disguise & Batman the natural default, which is both amusing & oddly insightful.

To make room for these introspective, parodic dives into Batman’s character, The Lego Batman Movie does little in the way of plot innovation. Like an episode of the 1960s Batman television series or the general ethos or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the game plan in this lego-ized version of a Batman plot is to just flood the screen with villains for the Caped Crusader to thwart. The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler, Catwoman, etc. are joined by non-Batman villains like Sauron, Gremlins, Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dracula to provide a long line of in-the-moment obstacles for Batman to clear on his path to the end credits. Outside a couple well-casted performances (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, etc.) there really isn’t much to hold onto in these external conflicts. Rather, it’s the emotional conflicts of Batman’s interpersonal relationships with friends & family (Alfred, Robin, Batgirl, himself) that drive to story. The Lego Batman Movie boasts fairly simplistic messages about learning to not be selfish & the value of asking for help that contrast with Batman’s self-absorbed rich boy nature as a vigilante who “karate chops poor people in a Halloween costume,” but that’s more than enough of a narrative structure to support the film’s true concern: self-referential goofs & gags.

The beautiful thing about this movie’s Batman nerdery is that it mostly focuses on Batman’s onscreen adaptations, as opposed to his life in comic books. There’s an inclusiveness to that kind of reference-based humor that I found constantly rewarding. From the opening heist sequence involving an “unnecessarily complicated bomb” that recalls The Dark Knight to the off-handed callback line, “You wanna get nuts?,” every inch of the script is crawling with heartfelt appreciation for Batman’s life in movies. References to less widely-loved properties like the (criminally undervalued) 1960s Batman: The Movie and even the 1940s serials are just as plentiful & thoughtful as the nods to Batman & Nolan. Much like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie does its best to capture the feeling of kids playing with toys on the living room floor, despite its nature as a corporate-sanctioned, CG-animated product deliberately designed to sell merchandise. Since I grew up a huge mark for Batman media (mostly thanks to Burton & The Animated Series), this particular version of smashing toys together actually resonated with my own memories of childhood playtime. That shared nerdery over Batman‘s cinematic past is likely a significant factor is why this indulgence in referential, tangential meta-humor worked so well for me while the same tactics in Deadpool left me absolutely cold.

The Lego Batman Movie is overlong for its paper thin plot & exhausting, gag-a-second style of post-ZAZ parody humor. It’s impressive how much of it works before that exhaustion sets in, however. I’m usually not at all a sucker for CG animation, but this Lego style has a cool, tactile stop-motion flavor to it that I really appreciate. The film’s knowledgeable assessment of Batman as a character can be impressive too, from commentary on his fear of familial love & his longterm relationships with supervillians to more shallow single-moment parodies where he literally shoots children in the face with merchandise or fights forgotten villains like Egghead & The Condiment King. The inspired casting of Arnett as Batman (and the alternate, improved universe where Channing Tatum plays Superman) is enough to carry the movie on its own, but it’s still endearing to see so much care & attention to detail poured into a property that appears to be all blatant commercialism from the surface. Maybe that intense fandom & craft is what’s missing for me in the meta sleaze of Deadpool, but, again, I’m really just grasping at straws trying to figure out why one of these movies worked for me while the other one didn’t. It’s a personal inconsistency that’s going to drive me mad until I can put a finer point on it.

-Brandon Ledet

Joshy (2016)

fourstar

If I were feeling especially lazy, I would substitute writing a full review for Joshy with simply taking a screenshot of its IMDb page with some MS Paint exclamation points added for effect. Jenny Slate! Aubrey Plaza! Brett Gelman! Thomas Middleditch! The dude who made Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)! A dark comedy about a devastatingly depressing weekend getaway, Joshy is stuffed to the gills with niche comedians and always-welcome performers. Even in the final twenty minutes I found myself exclaiming, “I can’t believe they’re in this too!” as new characters entered the frame. What was even more surprising & rewarding than any of the casting choices, however, was the realization that I’d become a fan of the film’s writer-director, Jeff Baena, without even realizing it. Apparently, Baena co-wrote I ♥ Huckabees & helmed his debut feature in the romantic horror comedy Life After Beth, two films I will passionately defend as being far better than their reputations. Just Gary Marshall dropping by as a zombie for a brief cameo was enough to land Life After Beth on my Best of 2014 list and the existential absurdism of Huckabees makes for my favorite David O. Russell film to date, despite that work’s generally divisive reception. After also taking delight in the gleefully bleak Joshy, I can comfortably say that I’m fully sold on Baena as a filmmaker. Only three projects into his career I’m going to count myself among his audience for life.

Five men commemorate an abruptly-ended engagement by honoring a reservation for the bachelor party at a remote cabin in California wine country. As you can probably guess, this situation quickly devolves into my beloved Party Out of Bounds subgenre, ranking up there with High-Rise, The Invitation, and A Bigger Splash as one of my favorite examples of that specific narrative structure I saw all last year. Caught between his friends’ wildly varied ideas of a good time (typified by reckless substance abuse or a Cones of Dunshire-style fantasy role playing game) the would-be bachelor Joshy  (Middleditch) quietly suffers while the world around him loudly crumbles. Joshy has the most readily recognizable reasons to be an emotional wreck, but all of his male compatriots, from the most bombastic bros to the most neurotic wet blankets, are in just as bad of a state. Joshy is first & foremost a film about men who do not comprehend how to deal with their emotions in a productive or honest way. They play & party their way around any direct engagement with their inner turmoil, filling their days with toy guns, drugs, and frivolous contact with a group of women having their own “weird party thing” nearby, all while avoiding any mention of the dark clouds of depression, alcoholism, and suicide that loom over them. At one point, a character even shouts, “It’s not okay to be sad!” to drive the point home. I don’t know if this speaks more about my personal taste or the immense talent of the cast, but this situation actually makes for some of the most hilarious cinematic moments of 2016 for me. Joshy traps itself under immense emotional pressure and the resulting comedy that explodes from that container had me screaming with laughter.

I suppose at first glance Joshy might come off as the clean cut indies & “mumblecore” aftershocks of filmmakers like the Duplass Bros (whom I personally dig) & Joe Swanberg (who appears in a cameo) and it’s possible that being able to enjoy that cinematic style is essential to appreciating this low-key indulgence in gallows humor. The closest comparison point I can conjure for it, though, is the work of Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland, particularly her film Bachelorette. Headland & Baena are both quietly trafficking in a highly specific, deeply affecting mode of caustic, ice bath humor. Their work is currently flying under the radar in terms of wide critical recognition, but I’m floored by how much they’ve been able to accomplish without making grand, sweeping maneuvers. Joshy is a cheap, quiet indie comedy about a few middle aged men who are having an awful time at a party that should have ended before it started. Baena managed to turn that scenario into both a painful exploration about how traditional masculinity leaves people ill-equipped to deal with emotions in a healthy, honest way and one of the funniest situational comedies of the year. I find that balance very impressive and I’m dying to see what he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Obvious Child (2014), and the Trajectory of the Modern Abortion Comedy

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July’s Movie of the Month, writer-director  Alexander Payne’s debut feature film Citizen Ruth, is a pitch black comedy about a woman pressured to have (or not to have) an abortion by political activists who care far less about her right to choose (or her unborn fetus’s right to life) than they do about scoring political points in the mass media. Payne intentionally chose the abortion rights debate as the moral crisis centerpiece of his film because he knew it was a hot button topic that would elicit strong reactions from his audience, one he could use to discuss the way a person’s humanity is stripped once they’re exploited as an issue instead of treated as an individual. This approach to abortion as a plot device in comedy is fairly typical. Movies that utilize abortion as a thematic focal point will often derive all of their dramatic weight from the decision about whether or not to have the procedure in this way, leaving the romance & humor of their narratives to separately function as relief from what is generally portrayed as a traumatic, life-changing experience. From classic examples like Fast Times at Ridgemont High & Dirty Dancing to recent comedies like Juno, Knocked Up, and Leslye Headland’s (sadly underappreciated) Bachelorette, abortion is almost always portrayed in cinema, even in comedy, as A Big Deal,  A Life-Changing Event, An Insurmountable Trauma. Citizen Ruth‘s major variation on that standard, besides its excruciatingly frank & honest discussion, is that it points the finger back at the political pundits that make abortion such a huge ordeal in the first place for the (fictional) woman who endures their grandstanding manipulation & exploitation.

The only comedy I’ve ever seen that casually engages with abortion as a normal, everyday subject instead of a life-altering crisis is 2014’s unconventional romcom Obvious Child. When we included Obvious Child on our Top Films of 2014 list, we praised it for “approaching a sensitive subject from a sincere & deeply empathetic place” and declared that it “deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Or at least one of the best in recent memory.” In the film Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one night stand with a nice Midwestern boy who she knows essentially nothing about. Unlike all of the other abortion titles cited here, this film’s central crisis isn’t whether or not to have the abortion (a decision that’s made quickly & decisively), but how to negotiate its impact on the would-be mother’s social & familial circles, a question that’s complicated when she finds herself falling in love with the would-be father. Obvious Child may be the only abortion comedy to date where its central procedure is presented as not a big deal, just another aspect of a complicated, nuanced life, which is in itself a sort of political statement (though not one as loud or as pointed as Citizen Ruth‘s). The film borrows a little bit of Citizen Ruth‘s blunt honesty & dark humor, but in its protagonist’s particular story arc a terminated pregnancy is presented as a solution to a problem instead of the source of one. It’s a refreshing change from the bleak  norm of cinematic moralizing & browbeating typical to the abortion comedy, one both Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child manage to criticize in their own respective ways: either by examining the intent of that browbeating or by sidestepping it entirely.

The major differences between what Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child accomplish might boil down to a question of genre. Alexander Payne’s 1996 political provocation is a true blue dark comedy, committing itself to Todd Solondz levels of inhuman cruelty & utter despair. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is a genre-faithful romantic comedy that just happens to center on a topic that the play-it-safe romcom formula usually won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Laura Dern & Jenny Slate’s respective protagonists in these two works aren’t all that different from one another and the the movies’ sources for humor start from a similarly bleak place. However, the severity of their circumstances are drastically dissimilar. Both Dern’s Ruth & Slate’s Donna begin their respective journeys as depressed addicts. Ruth is a homeless woman addicted to huffing household chemicals & Donna is a much more typical heartbroken alcoholic type trying to deal with the fallout of a recent breakup. Donna has a support system of caring friends & family who coach her through her unwanted pregnancy while Ruth is hopelessly alone in the world & thus vulnerable to anyone looking to exploit her for political gain. The father of Donna’s fetus is a genuinely nice guy the audience roots for her to date while Ruth’s baby’s father is an abusive monster the film thankfully avoids much contact with, except when Ruth gloriously jeers him with the John Waters-esque insult, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” from the window of a passing car. Even the reason for the two women’s delayed abortions is tonally telling: Ruth’s is delayed due to a national debate that supersedes her right to choose, while Donna is simply too early along in her pregnancy for the procedure.

I don’t mean to compare the two films’ disparate dramatic situations to claim that only one holds any significant weight and the other is a breeze. Donna has also suffered. She begins Obvious Child as a rejected lover unceremoniously dumped in a dive bar men’s room and suffers monetary dilemmas similar to (but not nearly as drastic as) the economic desperation that drives the plot of Citizen Ruth. I just mean to illustrate that Obvious Child stands as a tonal shift for the heavy-handed place abortion usually occupies in the modern comedy. Citizen Ruth represents an early moment of cinematic clarity where abortion is debated openly & honestly instead of being shamefully & superficially used as a plot device (or as shock value in throwaway gags, like in John Waters’s cult classic Polyester), as is typical for movies brave enough to approach it at all, including a lot of movies I greatly enjoy. Obvious Child latches onto that honesty & runs so much further with it, however, showing what it’s typically like for a woman (with a decent support network & a “livable” wage) to have an abortion & subsequently move on with her life. Donna & Ruth both start from a place of heartbreak & end on a note of open-ended success, but Donna’s journey is sadly funny in a much sweeter way, finding humor in details like sleeping with someone because they farted in your face or having to schedule an abortion on Valentine’s Day. The stakes are much lower than Citizen Ruth‘s life or death descent into poverty & addiction and, although it’s amazing that Payne was able to find humor in such a dark place, it’s much more encouraging that Obvious Child could move the conversation along while downplaying the abortion debate’s necessary emotional impact on a story.

The trajectory I’m detailing here is the same kind of effect as a Hollywood production passing homosexual romance off as no big deal instead of only portraying it as an inevitable tragedy where at least one of the characters involved dies & there’s no possible happy ending, as has been the Big Studio standard for decades. Citizen Ruth starts a frank & open conversation about abortion most comedies would typically exploit for dramatic or shock value beats. Obvious Child was yet another game changer that makes that need for a debate feel almost entirely insignificant in a modern context. It presents abortion as a normal, everyday thing people go through, opening the door for cinema to move on & let the debate die forever. Together, they help define the heights & boundaries of the abortion comedy as it stands today as well as the inevitable trajectory for a more honest, open-minded future (assuming that last bit’s not just wishful thinking on my part). We’re lucky to have them both.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Zootopia (2016)

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fourhalfstar

As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.

The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.

As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.

It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).

-Brandon Ledet