Why You Should Take Your Kids (And Yourself) To See Zootopia

I’m not usually supportive of movies with oppression narratives that don’t feature actual oppressed groups of people (see: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) — or at least, not of that aspect of them (I’ve been a diehard Potterhead for around ten years). When an oppression narrative is written in a way that mimics real life but takes out anything that actually makes it look like real life, the reaction is more that of guilt-free, black and white outrage that stays within the walls of the theater, rather than actual prolonged thought.

“These people are so evil! How could they treat all those people like that? But, I mean, they’re all white and white people aren’t actually oppressed, so that means it’s just fantasy and I don’t have to think about it anymore after I leave the theater.”

Zootopia, however, intrigued me because there weren’t any people. And it’s meant for kids! A movie about racism that’s intended for kids, doesn’t have any people, and includes frequent animal puns? Count me in.

The setup is pretty simple: long ago, predators ate prey and everything was violent and savage — but now, though there may still be some prejudice in the rural areas where Judy is from, over in the shining city of Zootopia all animals live together in peace and harmony and anyone can be anything!

Back home, Judy is told she will never achieve her dream of being a cop because she’s a bunny. But, although her size puts her at a disadvantage in training, Judy works hard, graduates top of her class, and become the first bunny cop.

Not so different from other kids’ movies, right? Protagonist is told they can’t do something, protagonist works hard and does it anyway, protagonist lives happily ever after. But here’s where Zootopia differs: Judy’s happily-ever-after is more of a kind-of-happily-but-mostly-really-complicated-ever-after.

Even though she’s achieved her goal against all odds, she’s still stereotyped and treated unfairly. While the other animals are given daring jobs that challenge their abilities, Judy is given parking duty. In the shining city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything, one of the first people Judy tries to apprehend disregards her and tells her she’ll never be anything but a dumb bunny.

Now, this is way farther than I’ve ever seen any kids’ movie take racism, so I would’ve still been overjoyed if Disney had left it there, but they went ahead and took it a step further.

The animal who is racist towards Judy is racist towards her because he’s been the target of racism so often he’s learned to play by the racists’ rules.

Well, I guess, two steps further, since then Judy is racist to the animal who was racist to her because other people were racist to him. (This is the point where I check the logo on my DVD to make sure Disney really made this.)

This choice to raise the stakes just a little higher is what sets Zootopia apart from its peers. While many kids’ movies leave the message at “don’t bully, treat everyone fairly, the bad guy is bad and you shouldn’t be them, etc.,” Zootopia went ahead and allowed its protagonist to mess up and do things characteristically bad guys would do.

I’ll admit, I got a little confused at that point. I guess you get into a certain mode when you’re watching a movie that you think is predictable, and you start looking for certain things that you’re accustomed to seeing. “But, what’s the metaphor?”* I thought, “Who’s the bad guy?”

And the answer is, of course, that there is no “bad guy.” Well, not when it comes to Judy and Nick, at least — or even Gideon Grey, the fox who bullied Judy as a child and as an adult sincerely apologized to her for it. There are good characters who made bad choices and acted on bad parts of themselves, but later realized their mistakes and apologized for them.

That may not sound like much, but in Zootopia, the apologies aren’t just an “Oops, sorry,” and the movie keeps going. Judy gets a whole scene dedicated to hers. Gideon Grey doesn’t try to brush his mistakes off with “But, you know, I was young.” They both own up to what they did wrong, make their regret for their actions and new understanding of why it was wrong clear, and promise to do better.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an extremely important thing to tell kids — especially in today’s callout culture, where the aim too often is just to “blast” the other person, rather than to actually try to see whose points hold water and acknowledge it if you realize yours don’t. Or even just in the realm of movies that tell kids to be the hero who’s always good and just and right; it’s nice to have a film that acknowledges that that’s the goal, but we don’t always live up to it right away and that’s okay.

The other important aspect of both apology scenes is that the characters who came forward and sincerely apologized were forgiven. People mess up. It doesn’t make them “problematic trash” that you should stop liking immediately and burn anything that has to do with them.

Zootopia is a movie that makes racism feel approachable to people who just learned it still exists, and one that will still give experts on the topic things to think about. It’s a movie that has somehow managed to make racism comfortable to discuss without diluting it too much.

And when the cast is entirely made up of animals, it leaves it up to the viewer to ask, “which one is me?” It lets people’s guards down. They don’t want to look like the bad guy, and they don’t have to. They just have to think for a while.

While still remaining upbeat and entertaining for younger kids, Zootopia doesn’t try to oversimplify the tangled and complex mess that is racism.

Also there are sloth jokes. And elephant puns. And moles from The Godfather.


*(Side note: I did come up with a metaphor, though, for that one bit and someone with art skills should totally draw it ’cause I really like it and for some reason most of the “Zootopia characters reimagined as humans” fan art has most of them as white people and that just doesn’t make any sense to me but that’s a different topic so anyway here’s the metaphor: Judy is a petite black woman with big grey fro-pigtails and Nick is a gruff-looking Muslim man and that’s why they both face the specific types of discrimination that they do.)

Hannah is a 17-year-old homeschooled senior from Maryland. She has too many interests and could not pick just one in time to go to college this fall, so she is spending this year trying to figure out the best way to pursue all of them at once. Hannah is currently studying classical voice, writing, film, and a little bit of art.


Inside Out & Mental Health

As someone with mental disorders, I have to say I was a little nervous to see Inside Out.  The way the movie delved into the human mind in such a peppy, caricatured way both worried and interested me.  Would it stay in the realm of humor and light-heartedness, or would it maybe explore what might happen when all someone’s emotions aren’t quite in check? Could this movie, perhaps, provide people with a comprehensible metaphor for disorders?

Half of me went into the theater hoping for the latter, wishing for a movie aimed at kids to finally tackle mental disorders — and the other half of me hoped they’d stay well away from the area, lest they should just make mental disorders even more misunderstood.  I tried not to invest myself too much in the film, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it took a turn for the worse, but by the end of the movie, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Disney/Pixar did choose to tackle one mental disorder, and in my opinion they did it pretty well.

Inside Out is centered around the idea that people operate on five main emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear — that work together in the “headquarters” of their person to make sure they stay content and functioning.  In the beginning of the movie, Joy is clearly Riley’s primary emotion.  Despite being downcast about having to move to a new state, leaving all her friends back in Minnesota, she manages to maintain an honestly upbeat outlook on things, and her parents thank her for remaining their “happy girl.”  A little ways into the film, however, Riley loses access to two of her emotions: Joy and Sadness, leaving her with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

My hope for the movie was that Joy would go missing, and we would then see what happened to Riley as she tried to go on without one of her vital emotions, but having her lose Sadness, too, was an even better move.  Although depression takes on different forms for different people, I think it’s safe to say that for most, depression isn’t actually being depressed in the sense of being sad.  Quite often, depression is having to force emotions that you don’t actually feel (which are usually the ones that make sense in whatever situation you’re in), and having to try to control the emotions you feel too much (the ones that don’t make sense).

This is exactly the nonsensical, frustrated behavior Riley exhibits when she tries to talk to her parents with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust at hand.  Her attention isn’t focused; she hardly looks at her parents as she snaps back irritable responses without understanding why she’s doing it (“What was that? I though you said we were going to act casual!” Fear narrates).

In the following scene, Riley’s father comes up to her room and tries to raise her spirits with a joke the two used to enjoy.  Riley merely stares at him, unable to find it funny.

We watch her judgment cloud, her relationships with her friends and family crumble, and her interests fade away.  We watch her shut down (displayed literally as Anger, Fear, and Disgust grasp hopelessly at a control panel that won’t respond to any of their commands as it begins to break down), and we see that no one, not even Riley herself, can help because the problem was caused by an imbalance in Riley’s mind that she has no control over.  She literally cannot change her outlook on things, because her brain has not given her the proper tools to.

Although it was a heartbreaking moment, it felt absolutely amazing to finally see that happen in a movie — especially a kids’ movie.  Far too many children go without help simply because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and don’t see why they need to ask for help, or because their parents don’t want to label them and end up mistaking a serious disorder for “just a part of growing up.”  I hope Inside Out will help children understand what they’re going through and how to explain it to others, and that it will help friends and family understand how to help (and why “think positive!” does far more harm than good in some situations).

I believe Inside Out will also be a help to children without disorders.  For the majority of the movie, we watch Joy shoving Sadness aside, trying to keep her out of Riley’s life entirely, and we see the disaster that ensues because of it.  In real life, we’re often told to “cheer up” or to “look on the bright side” because “life is good,” even if it’s a perfectly reasonable moment to not feel happy.

It’s never a good feeling to try and stuff an emotion away and tell yourself you’re feeling a different one, and at the end of this movie, the very obvious message is that having a plethora of emotions is okay.  It’s okay to feel.  Riley’s memories (represented as little orbs that glow the color of the emotion that accompanied them) — which were previously policed by Joy, who made sure all the other emotions kept well away from them — turn from all-yellow to a beautiful mix of colors as her emotions finally learn to work together.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to convince myself that I had a good day, when I really didn’t feel so good at the time.  Then, one day, I remember writing in my journal, “parts of the day were good, and parts of the day weren’t, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  It may seem like a simple thought, but it was the most liberating feeling in the world to finally accept it and stop trying to make everything all good all the time.

Inside Out may not have touched on many (still highly misunderstood) disorders — and it may not have been its intention to feature any — but in my opinion, what it did, it did well.

…Oh, and one more thing.  Everyone’s emotions were personified as either all female or all male, except for Riley’s, which were a mix of both.  Could we, perhaps, have our first non-binary Pixar character?

Movie Review: Frozen

I give Disney’s Frozen 4 out of 5 stars as a kids’ movie, and 3 out of 5 as a movie for all ages.  All around, it was a massive success for Disney.  The songs were catchy and clever, brought to life by Idina Menzel’s powerful voice (in the sense that she can not only blast away an audience, but also knows when to pull back), and Kristin Bell’s suitably sweet one.  “For the First Time in Forever” was an effective duet between Anna and Elsa, displaying their contrasting reactions to the gates opening and Anna’s ignorance to her sister’s fear, reprised in the second half of the movie in a more intense version that worked just as well.  The only qualities in the music that weren’t quite up to par with Disney’s usual standards were the inconsistency in musical styles, and the sometimes blunt, conversational lyrics that just felt lazily written and awkward.  For example: “There’ll be actual real live people / It’ll be totally strange / Wow am I so ready for this change” felt like filler words for a good rhyme, and “I suddenly see him standing there, a beautiful stranger tall and fair / I want to stuff some chocolate in my face!” seems like it was just put there, again, to rhyme with the previous line, and didn’t come across as funny or relatable or whatever it was supposed to be, just out-of-place and awkward — which, unfortunately happens a lot throughout the rest of the soundtrack.  When I listened to the songs that didn’t make it into the movie, I found surprisingly less of this.  The songs felt much more rounded out and the lyrics much more substantial, and there was even the fight between Anna and Elsa in the “Life’s Too Short” reprise (what became “For The First Time In Forever” reprise) that everyone expected to happen and never did.

I really wanted to give this movie 5 stars, and I was so close to it, but some of the scenes held just a bit too much juvenility for my tastes, and the mood of the story drifted all over the place without ever settling.  It was a film that held the obvious potential to be a 5+ star masterpiece, but it just left me feeling like I’d eaten a very gooey cake that, though it was still every bit as sweet, needed a bit more baking time.

The movie opens with a beautiful un-earthly song that sets the mood for a mystical folktale far from everyday life.  “Frozen Heart” continued this mood, and little Kristoff and Sven made an appearance in the sequence: they were a perfect “aww” moment while also planting the first clue to Kristoff’s personality.  I wasn’t expecting to see Anna and Elsa as children, but it was very effective, seeing something fun turn to something terrifying as Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers.  It lets you into Elsa’s head a bit better than if they had started with her as an adult.  It was also a very good choice to show how her powers affected her over the years, fed by her own fear, until it wasn’t just about the powers themselves anymore — they’d diminished her whole way of life.  The only thing I was expecting to see in Elsa’s childhood that wasn’t ever explained was where her powers came from and why they were there.  We know she was born with them, but don’t ever get to understand how or why.

So far, the mood of the movie seemed constant.  But it was soon countered by stubby little rock trolls who looked like they came out of an entirely different movie, and a ridiculous duke who spouted nonstop nonsense in the hopes that one line somewhere in the mess would get an unnecessary laugh.

From the previews, I was expecting Olaf to have this same effect, but he didn’t at all.  Every now and then his jokes about his butt that wouldn’t stay attached to him would get a bit tiring, but not enough to counter the fact that he was genuinely funny and endearing, and a bridge back to Anna and Elsa’s closeness as children.

The rock-trolls, however, never achieved this.  They had little to no purpose in being Kristoff’s adopted family, and wasted a good 3 minutes on “Fixer Upper,” a song which I can only assume was put there to make us realize how good a match Kristoff and Anna would be.  They drew me out of the story and left me with a difficult time getting back in, and I wish Disney would sell an alternate version without them.  Or at least bother to make them match the tone of the rest of the movie.

One thing you need to know before you go into the next segment of this review: I was determined to love Frozen.  I mercilessly defended it when people began dubbing it “Tangled with snow,” as I was sure Disney would be smarter than to make a movie desperately trying to re-appeal to Tangled’s audience, and I pushed all doubts I had about Olaf after watching the previews out of my mind.  This movie was not going to be Tangled With Snow, it was going to be a movie all its own and I was going to like it.

The thing was, the actual movie held undeniable similarities to Tangled.  Not on major aspects, and not on many, but they were there; and frankly, they ruined the possibility of Frozen‘s being a truly outstanding movie.  In trying to recreate Tangled’s atmosphere in Frozen, Disney essentially crammed two movies into one and the contrast was horribly evident.

Tangled never attempted a serious tone.  There were serious moments, but the overarching tone was always far more light-hearted than Frozen, which set the mood for a serious story, then dipped into the same sort of light-hearted humor as was seen in Tangled.  While it was effortless in Rapunzel’s story, it wasn’t only out of place in Frozen, but seemed terribly forced.  Humor cannot be sprinkled onto a movie as an afterthought, it has to blossom out of it in places where it would naturally (and makes sense to) occur; and if it instead comes only from the desire to make people laugh, it’s just not going to be funny.

I have heard numerous comments on Frozen’s “bringing animation to a whole new level,” but really it’s not a whole new level at all.  It is a level that has been done many times before, and done much better.  In fact, I kept thinking as I watched that I remembered Tangled’s animation being more detailed and consistent.  I was expecting the same level of quality in Frozen because it looked like the same sort of CGI as Tangled.  It seemed to me that Frozen would focus heavily on making some scenes and/or objects astoundingly realistic, but then brush aside others.  The party scene was one place I noticed this; whilst Anna and Elsa’s dresses were highly textured and detailed with embroidery and depth, the party-goers’ gowns appeared flat, the CGI calling attention to itself.  Obviously, the focus should be on Anna and Elsa, and not as much work is necessary on background characters, but it is necessary to make them all look like they’re in a film — not just the main characters and the others looking like they’re out of a video game; and even Anna’s movements looked a bit stiff and odd in some places.  And when you begin the movie with a gorgeous ice and snow scene, you have to make the rest of the film live up to it, otherwise it just looks doubly bad.

The characterization exceeded my expectations immensely the first time I saw the film, but after a second watch I found that it fell short of what I remembered.  The concept of the characters still seemed every bit as brilliant, however they also seemed underdeveloped and in need of much more work before they hit the big screen.
My main issue with Disney movies is their tendency to write characters for convenience.  I was expecting Frozen to be a lot like that from the trailers I’d seen: the classic bubbly cute heroine, friendly and talkative; the charming prince designed to sweep you, as well as Anna, off your feet; and the Flynn Rider-esque companion that has become such a beloved personality.  I didn’t really see the standard characteristics in Elsa, which is what made me most excited about this movie, and when I got to the theater, I didn’t see the standard characteristics in any of the other characters, either.
Sure, Anna was bubbly and ditzy at times, but it was so wonderfully genuine and was partnered with so many other traits.  She had a strong side and she was always looking out for the people around her — one characteristic was not all that defined her.  She wasn’t just set aside for comic relief, they addressed the moment in which she had to start taking life more seriously — and they made the choice to be strong up to her, which I appreciated, since in the past it has (not always, but frequently) been handed over to princes and animal friends.

Hans, on the other hand, was so disappointingly flat.  Disney has set the bar so high for villains, especially after Tangled’s Mother Gothel, that Hans was able to walk right under it.  He was so unfailingly sweet and considerate up until the “big twist” that he wasn’t at all believable.  One little crack would have fixed this — one momentary slip up.  The opportune moment would have been the end of the scene directly following “For The First Time In Forever,” when Anna runs back to the palace and Hans’ horse takes its hoof off the boat, causing Hans to fall in the water.  There was no one around, yet he surfaces and smiles sweetly and forgivingly at his horse, as if this is how they always interact.  One little smirk, one tiny furrow of the eyebrows, something to negate his charming act was all that was needed.  There was no physical foreshadowing whatsoever and when it got to the twist, things just got cliché.  It felt like being a five-year-old and having to listen to someone tell you a story in such a condescending manner that you lose interest in the story altogether.  Hans’ transformation was incredibly abrupt and exaggerated, as if Disney was making sure everything was perfectly clear, and that just made him terribly unbelievable, which was disappointingly lazy writing.

I have few to no complaints about Kristoff.  He has definitely become one of my all-time favorite Disney characters.  His personality and character traits were unique and fresh, and whenever he brought humor to the scene, it seemed real, and was therefore actually funny.  The only thing I would have liked to have seen was a bit more of his backstory.  Things like who his parents were, if they were there for the early portion of Kristoff’s life or not, if Kristoff chose to be alone or was left alone, etc.  Towards the end of the movie, when he was sure he was going to stay in Anna’s life, the softer, less boyish side let itself out of him and I desperately wanted to know how it would grow and/or develop over time.  I’d love to see more of him and of Elsa in a sequel.

As I said, I was really looking forward to seeing into Elsa’s mind and getting the full depth of her character, but it never happened.  It felt as if they just brushed over her because they liked starring Anna better.  True, it was Anna’s story and not Elsa’s, but it was advertised more as a 50/50 sisters story.  And that’s still no reason to let a character slide onto the screen underdeveloped.  Elsa’s body language was spot on, from the way she began with just clasping her hands together as a child to how that action grew into curling completely into herself whenever she came into contact with anyone as an adult; however, the only thoughts we really ever got to see clearly with Elsa were scared, free, relapsed into scared, free again.  Everything else I had to either deduce or make up about her.  To clarify, I do not mind doing that at all — in fact, I love it.  I do it with every movie, TV show, book, whatever, even if I don’t need to.  But if I do need to, it lowers my respect for the movie, as it was perfectly within their capability to take just a bit more time and make the character more multidimensional without the watcher having to do it on their own.  There were plenty of opportunities to give us just a little more to go on with Elsa, and every one of them was missed.  Just a couple clips of her in “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” would have helped immensely, or a short sequence of her as an adult in her ice palace.  Sure, Anna was bored and lonely, but she wasn’t by herself in that.  In fact, I’d think Elsa would probably get even more bored and lonely, since she doesn’t even have the palace to roam or the servants to talk to — it’s just her and her room.  She’s been locked up for close to ten years, and nobody can spend all that time staring at their hands and having panic attacks, there are times when you would be forced to let go and entertain yourself somehow since there are no other options.  I mean, what does she do all day every day? We don’t know, and because of that we don’t know who she is as a character.  She turned into a character whose job was merely to move the plot along, and that was so disappointing to me.  Instead of taking just a bit more time to fully flesh her out, Disney decided to go with the shallow surface version of Elsa, making her defining characteristic fear to anyone who hasn’t sat down and analyzed her as much as I have (because I love her and she’s my favorite, yay).

Elsa gets a second paragraph, because I have oh, so much more to say about her.
Though it’s true we never got to see many of her thoughts, we saw enough to know that Elsa is one of if not the most important character in Disney history.  Elsa is so incredibly different from any Disney heroine we have ever seen before.  Many suspected it throughout the movie, and writer/director Jennifer Lee confirmed speculations: “[With Elsa, it] definitely was intentional to show anxiety and depression.”  Elsa has mental illnesses.  And she’s one of the “good guys.”  Many people dealing with mental illnesses, commonly anxiety and depression, have come to believe they are the “bad guys,” or even crazy, because they have never seen elements of what they’re dealing with reflected in anyone but the villain.  Elsa was immediately embraced by the fan base because she breaks that rule.  She cuts herself off from everyone to keep them safe and free from everything that is crippling her; she can’t control and doesn’t understand all these things that are brewing inside her; she doesn’t have an unwaveringly optimistic outlook on life, and she allows it to get the better of her; she keeps everything imprisoned inside of her, and it must remain in only her after the death of her parents (which is enough to prompt insanity in and of itself), and it ends up coming out in explosions she can’t contain; she hurts people — it is always accidental or because she thinks it will ultimately help them, but she hurts people; she froze her sister’s heart because she wasn’t able to master herself . . . and it’s still okay.  She’s still not a villain.  Because even though she can’t see it and she’s not often told it, she’s still a good person and capable of overcoming all that she thinks she can’t.  And people love her, because she chooses their safety and happiness over loving herself.  She is a beacon of hope for those who are all too familiar with her circumstance, and a ticket to illumination and understanding for those who are not.

Although this movie was rushed into theaters prematurely and the holes in it were still gaping open, I did love the concept immensely; and aside from Elsa, the second main reason I liked this movie was the un-classically Disney ending.  The act of true love that Anna was told would save her was not a kiss from her Prince Charming, though he was just feet away from her when she was about to turn to ice.  In fact, it had nothing to do with him, nor anyone else’s show of love towards Anna: it was Anna’s courage in choosing her sister over herself.  Sometimes we forget what true love is and get it stuck in our heads it must be something that makes our hearts race and spirits soar; but though true love may include those things, it can just as easily be pain and despair, and will always consist of sacrifice, suffering, and selflessness.  I think the main thing we forget, though, is that true love is not explicitly romantic.  Even when Anna has shown the ultimate act of love for her sister by saving her instead of herself, some of us still (unintentionally, because it has been so ingrained into our subconsciouses) had that little voice pop up in our heads urging Kristoff to kiss her.  Disney’s reminder in Frozen was not only highly anticipated after their many films helping us to forget what true true love is, but highly needed and heartwarming.  We don’t need to go looking for true love, waiting for it to magically happen when “the right one” comes along, we can make the choice to be brave and bring true love to our lives every day, and while we’re at it melt all the slivers of ice that settle in our own hearts.