Friday, March 4, 2016


Opening this week:

ZootopiaThe title refers to a city that looks like a theme park, with frozen tundra, desert, rainforest and other ecosystems all conveniently connected by highway exits. The inhabitants, you see, are animals—anthropomorphic, bipedal, civilized mammals of every sort, from pachyderms to rodents, living side by side.

It’s not Utopia, however. Inter-species tensions continue, especially between predator and prey species, and there are glass ceilings in certain professions. Our heroine Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), for instance, is a bunny who has internalized the high-minded idea that “Anyone can be anything,” and she wants to grow up to be a police officer, normally a job for the likes of tigers and rhinos and cape buffalo.

Through determination and resourcefulness, Judy realizes her dream, but as with many pioneers, she gets stuck with traffic duty. Before long, however, she’s caught up in a mystery involving missing predators, and develops a tense alliance with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily vulpine con artist.

The buddy-picture plot that ensues is surprisingly dark and noir-ish at times, and in some ways Zootopia is one of the least sentimental Disney movies I can remember. It’s fraught with unmistakable racial and class subtext, and although it has the struggling underdog protagonist standard to animated features, it honestly grapples with the complex and painful realities behind the believe-in-yourself platitudes of the genre. Thus, the movie’s ultimately positive conclusions feel hard-won, and all the more uplifting.

Zootopia is delightful, but I did have a complaint: the freakin’ 3-D. At least at the screening I saw, it dimmed and washed out the images, and added not one effect that I thought was worth the eyestrain. See it in old-fashioned 2-D.

In case anybody still cares, a few notes on the Oscars:

It was gratifying for me to see the number one movie on my Top Ten list, Tom McCarthy’s low-key powerhouse Spotlight, win Best Picture at the Oscars this year. It was even more gratifying to see the great, 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, who had never won an Oscar for Best Original Score (he won an honorary Oscar in 2007), take the statue for his superb music for The Hateful Eight. It makes up, sort of, for Morricone not even being nominated for his greatest score, for 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.

But most of the satisfactions of this year’s surprisingly enjoyable Oscar show had little to do with the nominees, and more to do with the host. Interest in the Oscars was high this year, less because of any particular suspense as to who would win, and more because of what the great Chris Rock would say and do. While the telecast was glacially paced and overlong as usual, Rock, who had not too memorably hosted the show in 2005, brilliantly managed his tricky duties this year.

What made it a tricky gig was, of course, the controversy over the lack of racial diversity among this year’s nominees. Some African-American industry notables had boycotted the show, and Rock himself had been urged to decline the job.

His approach was marvelously disarming. From the very first line of his monologue, he attacked the subject straightforwardly, good-naturedly and in all directions—his jokes were at the expense of the Academy, the boycotters, and himself, and they ranged from daringly tasteless to thoughtful. A high percentage of them were genuinely funny, and all of them put the controversy into perspective, without disrespect to the validity of the boycott’s grievance.

Perhaps most amusingly, however, was that Rock wouldn’t let it go. I expected he’d try to dispense with the subject with a few jokes at the beginning of his monologue and then move on to a business-as-usual Oscars, but bit after bit kept coming back to it. The show was so single-mindedly devoted to the controversy that, ironically, it probably brought attention to racial inequities in Hollywood in a way that no number of minority nominations could have, deserved though they might be. And it seems pretty unlikely that this would have been the case if Rock hadn’t hosted.

A couple of disappointments: Names eyebrow-raising-ly omitted from the “In Memoriam” segment included Abe Vigoda, Geoffrey Lewis, George Gaynes, Tony Burton and Pat Harrington, Jr. Also, while the brilliant Mark Rylance entirely deserved to win Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies, I still found it slightly disappointing—I wanted to see Stallone win for Creed. But I suppose it’s in the spirit of the original Rocky, where even though he didn’t win, Rocky triumphed just because he got to the Main Event.

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