Onward review

For F*** Magazine

ONWARD

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast : Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 5 March 2020
Rating : PG

Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt take a detour into another fantastical realm in this animated adventure comedy from Pixar.

Holland and Pratt voice elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot respectively. They live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), their father having passed away when Barley was very young and before Ian had any memory of him. On the day of Ian’s 16th birthday, he is gifted a magical staff and an accompanying scroll – inscribed upon it is a spell that could bring their father back to life for just one day. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch and only their father’s legs materialise. Ian and Barley must go on a quest in search of the Phoenix gem to bring all of their father back before the 24-hour window expires.

Onward uses its lead voice actors to great effect, with Holland and Pratt both playing to type – Holland’s Ian is the awkward reserved young man who’s coming of age, while Pratt’s Barley is enthusiastic and boisterous if irresponsible. The movie hinges upon Ian and Barley’s relationship as siblings and does a good job of showing how even though they fight and disagree, they ultimately love each other and must be there for each other especially since they have lost their father.

This being Pixar, the animation is superb, even if the film is not quite as remarkable design-wise as some of the studio’s other efforts. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate set-pieces, save for a big climactic battle sequence. There’s still a great attention to detail and there is amusement to be derived from the film’s milieu of a modern world populated by magical creatures. There are several inspired gags that are set up and paid off nicely, as well as a good amount of physical comedy – the film gets a lot of mileage out of the floppy “dummy” that stands in for the missing upper body of Ian and Barley’s father.

Octavia Spencer voices Corey, a Manticore who runs a tavern and whose glory days are somewhat behind her. The film includes a subplot in which Laurel seeks Corey’s help to find her missing sons and ensure their safety. Corey makes for a fun side character.

While Onward has the novelty of being Pixar’s first real foray into the high fantasy genre, its plot is extremely generic – it’s a chosen one hero’s journey, right down to the rite of passage that takes place on a significant birthday. It feels like the movie has bursts of inspiration, with serviceable story beats in between. Almost all of Pixar’s movies can be classified as road trip stories in some form or another, and Onward is no exception. We know our heroes will meet colourful characters and get into scrapes along the way, but it feels like Onward falls just a bit short of its full imaginative potential. It lacks the poignancy and the considered observations of other Pixar films – it is effectively emotional and moving, but also often in danger of coming off as emotionally manipulative.

The filmmakers demonstrate a palpable affection for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and tabletop/card games of their ilk. The film even includes two actual D&D monsters, which appear courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. Once the target of the 80s “Satanic panic”, Onward is yet another sign of how D&D has entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness.

A big part of what makes the movie work is that there is a personal component for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, who also helmed Monster’s University for Pixar. Scanlon’s father passed away when he was one and his brother was three, leaving behind a tape recording of him simply saying “hi” and “bye”. The film’s palpable emotional resonance is a result of Scanlon bringing this personal history to the table.

Summary: Onward’s plot may be an old-fashioned hero’s journey and its fantasy elements might be familiar even though they’re blended with modern day trappings, but there’s sincerity and joy in this tale of brotherhood and bereavement. This is not quite Pixar’s best, but it’s still going to find a devoted audience.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Gifted

For F*** Magazine

GIFTED 

Director : Marc Webb
Cast : Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Keir O’Donnell, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

       Being a genius must be awesome. If we’ve learnt anything from watching TV, it means you can solve crimes with a single glance, shaming the stubborn cops who ever doubted you in the first place. But those same TV shows have also taught us that being a genius can be as much a curse as a gift, as is evident in this drama.

Mary Adler (Grace) is an exceptionally gifted 7-year-old with a keen acumen for mathematics. She lives in a central Florida town and is cared for by her uncle Frank (Evans), after her mother Diane died when Mary was a baby. Mary’s only friend is her neighbour Roberta Taylor (Spencer), who helps Frank look after her. On Mary’s first day at school, her teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Slate) quickly realises that Mary’s capabilities far outstrip those of her peers. Frank rejects a scholarship for Mary to attend a school that caters for gifted children, saying that his sister wanted Mary to lead a normal childhood. Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Duncan) sues for custody of her granddaughter, believing that Mary’s potential will not be realised if she remains under Frank’s care. A battle to determine what is best for Mary ensues.

Gifted is directed by Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man fame. It’s an intimate drama with comedic elements and while one would expect it to be saccharine and sentimental given the above synopsis, the film refrains from heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Hardened cynics are still advised to give this a wide berth, though.

Tom Flynn’s screenplay is witty and the film progresses at a steady pace. Gifted could’ve easily been overwrought, but Webb demonstrates sufficient restraint. This has the double-edged sword of rendering the story more believable, but also less memorable. Since it revolves around a preternaturally intelligent child and her ‘dad’ who has trouble keeping up, there are moments when Gifted feels like a sitcom. However, this is mitigated by how cinematic the film looks, thanks to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s postcard-ready frames, and location filming on Tybee Island, Georgia, doubling for Florida.

Evans may be best known as Marvel’s star-spangled man, but it seems that he gravitates towards smaller projects, having indicated that the pomp and circumstance that come with promoting the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies aren’t exactly his bag. Both he and child actress Grace work well off each other, creating a compelling bond. While Frank’s heart is in the right place, he makes questionable judgement calls, but the film does a fine job of cluing us in to where he’s coming from.

Mary is the linchpin of the plot, and as such, must be more than a mere plot device. Thankfully, Grace is up for the task. Her performance is mostly in line with the stock ‘precocious kids’ we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. However, Grace gets to showcase her acting chops in several dramatic scenes, proving she’s more than just a cute moppet. That said, she is plenty adorable, and when she knits her brows and furrows intensely, it’s hard not to go “aww”.

Evans and Slate share palpable chemistry, and even though the romance between Frank and Bonnie is the most formulaic ingredient in a film made of them, the two performers are enjoyable to watch. It’s no surprise that the relationship carried over into real life, and though the couple has broken up, they apparently remain good friends. Duncan is the right degree of icy as Frank’s supercilious mother. We’re meant to root against her, but she’s not an outright villain either, Duncan fully able to parse those nuances. Unfortunately, Spencer doesn’t get too much to do as the kind neighbour who’s become invested in Mary’s upbringing.

While Gifted doesn’t pack enough of an emotional punch, nor does it delve deep enough into the myriad challenges of raising a child like Mary, is watchable and engaging. Even though it’s comprised of familiar narrative elements, director Webb and writer Flynn still demonstrate skill in telling the story, particularly in parcelling out details about Mary’s mother as the film progresses. Even if it isn’t spectacularly complex or profound, Gifted has significantly more on its mind than the average family drama tearjerker.

Summary: Gifted is a slickly packaged heartstring-plucker that features sincere performances and moving moments, even if it falls short of brilliance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shack

For F*** Magazine

THE SHACK 

Director : Stuart Hazeldine
Cast : Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

Sam Worthington has encountered aliens, robots and the Greek pantheon across his acting career. In this faith-based drama, Worthington comes face to face with God Himself – or Herself, as the case may be.

Worthington plays Mack Phillips, who has endured a difficult childhood with an abusive father (Derek Hamilton). Mack is happily married to Nan (Mitchell), his wife of 18 years, and they have three children together: Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Eve). A family tragedy leaves Mack in shambles, questioning the existence of God. When Mack receives a letter inviting him to ‘the Shack’ signed ‘Papa’, Missy’s nickname for God, his first instinct is that it’s a cruel joke. In a moment of desperation, Mack decides to investigate, on the off chance that God really might be waiting for him in the woods. He is greeted by Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire). While Mack is unable to believe the bizarre circumstances, at first, he eventually allows his soul to be healed as he spends time with the physical manifestations of the Holy Trinity.

The Shack is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young. The self-published book eventually became a best-seller, resulting in lawsuits over royalties and authorship. It’s as funny as it is sad that behind this inspirational novel which has been credited with “changing lives” is a story of greed and animosity. While The Shack is beloved by millions around the world, it has also drawn the criticism of several theologians, pastors and priests, who claim that it misrepresents God as described in the Bible and that it echoes New Age teachings.

Faith-based movies have gotten a bad rap, criticised for everything from poor production values to the use of strawman arguments. The Shack tackles topics that are darker and less comfortable than one would find in your average Christian movie. It makes a valiant attempt at addressing hurt and anger at God. At its heart is the Problem of Evil, the conundrum of how to reconcile a benevolent God with the existence of evil. This has been mulled over by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the answers presented in The Shack aren’t exactly convincing. There’s plenty of blatant emotional manipulation, and after a downer of a first act, things get syrupy fast.

“The secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves to the surface,” narrator Tim McGraw intones. Judging by Worthington’s performance, Australian accents are a lot like secrets that way. There are many dramatic moments in which Mack tearfully pleads with the members of the Trinity to explain why God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. Worthington isn’t phoning it in, but there are times when it seems like he might’ve run off in-between takes to make panicked phone calls to James Cameron, demanding why Avatar 2 isn’t ready for production yet.

The film’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman has raised several eyebrows. Apparently, this is a form with which Mack will be comfortable, which is why God chooses this guise to appear to Mack in. While Spencer’s performance brims with good-natured warmth, this is an example of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope through and through, the Southern mammy housekeeper.

We acknowledge that this is the first English-language film to actually cast an Israeli actor as Jesus, and depicting Holy Spirit as an ethereal Japanese woman is, if nothing else, interesting. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves, also shows up, as does Brazilian actress Alice Braga. It’s kind of a step in the right direction that the film has as diverse a cast as it does, but it has the unfortunate implication of people from other ethnicities guiding the white guy to spiritual enlightenment. This is exactly what Doctor Strange, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian, male role, was bending over backwards to avoid, creating a new set of controversies in the process.

Many other works of fiction have attempted to humanise God, to render a figure often seen as distant and unapproachable more relatable. The Shack’s approach to this is one of the reasons why it’s been decried as heretical by certain scholars. There are viewers who might find comfort in seeing the Trinity being relaxed, friendly, patient and caring. However, there are others who might consider this too Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque, its blend of sentimentality and magical realism altogether too cloying. Other reviewers have mocked The Shack as coming off like a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show – at one point, Winfrey herself was linked to the Papa role in this film. There are many who have found the novel to be therapeutic, and a psychiatrist and family therapist named Brad Robison has even written a study guide after using the book in his practice. It didn’t have this effect on us.

The use of a fantastical parable to address feelings of loss, bereavement and confusion is a fine starting point, and one that could have been the basis for a poetic, poignant film. Instead, The Shack is on-the-nose and clumsy. It’s different enough from the traditional idea of a ‘Christian movie’, but is content with peddling platitudes rather than provoking thought.

Summary: A mawkish faith-based parable, The Shack trades in emotionally manipulative melodrama and faux-sage truisms.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

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Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

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Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

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The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

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Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

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While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

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Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Zootopia

For F*** Magazine

ZOOTOPIA

Director : Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Cast : Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 109 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG

Cat Stevens told us “baby, baby it’s a wild world”, and the makers of this animated film have taken this to heart. In a world populated entirely by a variety of anthropomorphic mammals, Judy Hopps (Goodwin) is a principled, spirited young rabbit from Bunnyburrow. She has her heart set on becoming a police officer, even though her parents (Hunt and Lake) would prefer her to become a carrot farmer like them. Hopps gets inducted into the Zootopia Police Department, but Chief Bogo (Elba) has little faith in her abilities. While on the case of a missing otter, Judy crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Bateman), a red fox con artist. They have to overcome their natural animosity to work together in solving a spate of mysterious disappearances, as societal tensions between “prey” and “predators” bubble over.


            Zootopia’s marketing campaign seemed to indicate a film that might be too cutesy for some audiences’ tastes, appearing like it would serve up an endless parade of anthropomorphic animals performing adorable, amusing antics. To this reviewer’s surprise, Zootopia ends up far deeper than it initially appears, gamely and sensitively tackling the themes of prejudice and tolerance in the context of an animated family film. Directors Howard, Moore and Bush tread very fragile ground and ensure that Zootopia doesn’t come off as preachy or painfully on-the-nose in delivering its message to impressionable kids. At the same time, there’s plenty of wit and visual invention on display and the liveliness of the presentation helps ease the audience into the surprisingly mature allegory at the heart of the film.



            Walt Disney Animation’s entirely computer-animated films got off to a rocky start with Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the studio still firmly stuck in Pixar’s looming shadow. With the likes of Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, suffice it to say that things have improved. The army of animators involved in breathing life into Zootopia have done a marvellous job, with impeccable fur textures and environmental effects in every frame. The characters are expressive, with just the right blend of human and animal traits combined to sell the anthropomorphism. There is a thoroughness to the way the world has been conceived, with a distinct animism to the architecture and plenty of clever visual gags emphasizing how animals of drastically different scales and sizes co-exist in the same milieu. With the pop culture allusions that include winks at The Godfather and Breaking Bad for the parents in tow, there’s a degree of Dreamworks-ness at work here, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

            This is essentially a buddy cop movie, of the “one’s a cop and one’s not a cop” subset. It sticks very closely to established tropes: our hero is a kind-hearted but tough straight arrow, her foil is a charming rogue lacking in scruples, the police chief is unconvinced that the rookie has what it takes, colourful characters including organised crime elements show up and there’s a mystery to unravel. Even though Zootopia is comprised of familiar story components, the setting does lend it a freshness.



            Goodwin, who has a connection to Disney in the form of starring as Snow White in the TV show Once Upon a Time, gives Judy an eagerness that never crosses over into being annoying. She’s literally wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Bateman is a dab hand at the smooth talker shtick, but there’s more to Nick than his conman façade and Bateman and Goodwin deliver some moving emotional beats. Elba’s unmistakable baritone is always a joy to listen to, and this year, we’ll also get to hear his voice work in The Jungle Book and Finding Dory.

Veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche turns in a side-splitting Marlon Brando impression as Mr. Big, the arctic shrew mafia don. This reviewer was worried that Shakira’s presence as the pop star Gazelle would be too gimmicky, but the character is used judiciously and her main appearance is in a musical number during the end credits. Some big laughs come courtesy of Raymond S. Persi, who voices the sloth Flash. Kristen Bell has a vocal cameo as Flash’s colleague Priscilla, a fun inside joke seeing as Bell is famously, endearingly obsessed with sloths.



            There’s certainly more than meets the eye with Zootopia. While it’s perfectly enjoyable on the level of an animated adventure comedy with the jokes flying at a steady pace, it also eloquently and thoughtfully comments upon issues of race and diversity, without feeling like it’s merely hopping on some kind of social justice bandwagon. The self-aware comedy sometimes veers into Shrek territory, but pop culture references only account for a portion of the humour. While not on the same level as last year’s Inside Out, Zootopia does a commendable job of packaging challenging themes for younger audiences without being condescending or tripping up over itself.

Summary: Entertaining, funny, visually engaging and thought-provoking, Zootopia is so much more than silly talking animals.

RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong