Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Zootropolis: At least they tried

Zootropolis is a good movie by any measure; it’s funny, it’s well paced and they’ve got the balance right between jokes for kids and jokes for the people bringing them to the movie. It takes a certain amount of sense to realise that ONE joke about Breaking Bad is the right amount for the whole movie.

More than that, it’s a movie which is trying to get across an important message. And like the heading says, at least they tried. I’m just not sure it worked. The high concept in Zootropolis is that all mammals are living together in harmony despite the fact that some of them are natural predators and most of them are prey. The predators are holding their natural impulses in check and everyone just gets along, at least as much as people get along with each other. So the movie has a lot of chances to make points about bigotry and prejudice in a way which might just get kids thinking about their reflexes before they set into the same rut we’re living in now.

Where things go a bit wrong is when the movie swings off into the bigger question of the war on adjectival nouns. The big plot point in the movie is growing paranoia that the predators might go back to their old mammal-gnashing ways, which raises the stakes on prejudice to the point where society could fall apart. A lot of movies are trying to find a way to talk about the way western society is reacting to middle eastern social implosion, assymmetric warfare and the growth of islamic communities in the west. I’m just not sure that the tension between predators and prey is the best metaphor. 

The thing is, predators are naturally dominant over prey. It pretty much wouldn’t work any other way. And predators are far less numerous than prey; again, it pretty much can’t work any other way. So predators only make a plausible metaphor for the elite; the people at the top of the pyramid who live off the efforts of people below them. If you were looking for a global analogue for predators in the real world, I’d suggest that you wouldn’t look much further than the people who actually field an armed drone called Predator”. 

But it gets worse. The message here is that predators are always a threat; only constant, relentless self control can stop them from hulking out and devouring all around them; they can never truly be good without immense effort, while the prey species are just lovely whether they’re trying or not. So no matter who you think the predators are standing in for, that’s not really a message that we’re all truly alike.

And it gets worse again; because when all is said and done and the dust has cleared, the predators have been rehabilitated, and they’re back in charge of the city; the natural order of things has been restored. Which is not a message for change in the way we do things.

Anything else to worry about? Well, for all that we’re being told that stereotypes are wrong and anyone can be anything, most of the animals are stereotypes; none more so than the sloths, who all work in the DMV. Because they’re slow. And can’t be anything else.

And however uneasy they might be about the global war on whatever we’re fighting this week, the writers give us an enchanting picture of the benefits of a pervasive surveillance state; the key reveals in the plot are all down to a Central London level of CCTV cameras, because, of course, we’re all safe under the unblinking eye of the state.

No, ha ha, of course we’re not. This is a Hollywood movie, and if there’s one lesson you can always rely on from Hollywood movies, it’s that you can never trust mid level functionaries of central government. Government is always the bad guy; you can only trust mavericks and people who work outside the system. No wonder everyone’s getting ready to vote to Trump.

With all the politics so dodgy, it’s a good thing it works as a fun movie. It’s got Idris Elba in it, as the wonderful Chief Bogo, my new role model. It’s got a beguiling economy of props, in which almost everything we see in a character’s hands winds up being used for something unexpected yet somehow inevitable. It’s got a gag every minute or two, and most of them are good. It’s got a lot of shoutouts to other movies - including an extended Godfather riff - but they’re paced right, and they’re still funny even if you don’t recognise the source material. Mr Big is the best criminal mastermind since the Toad in Flushed Away, even if he is a wafer thin replica of Vito Corleone. 

So, by all means see it; it’s about the best thing running in wide release right now, as if that’s saying much. But don’t get your hopes up that it’s going to change the world, or anyone’s mind.

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