Zootopia

Zootopia looks great and has spectacular voice work, but it lacks the magic that would elevate it to the top rung of Disney animation work. Zootopia’s plot exposition and message causes it to fall short in the pure fun and laughter departments. But don’t let those slight qualms stop you from seeing it.

Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin) is a bunny whose farmer parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) encourage her to set her personal ambition bar low and settle. Judy, however, wants to move to the city of Zootopia and join the police force.

Zootopia looks like a cross between Shanghai and the Capitol in The Hunger Games. This fauna universe is divided into zones that include a rain forest, a desert and a wintry world, as well as the downtown area. It’s a city where all the animals coexist peacefully because the predators have somehow mellowed out.

After Judy becomes an officer, her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) limits her work to issuing parking citations. She does her best, writing hundreds of tickets each day. On the street, she encounters a nemesis, soon to become an ally, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox.

Zootopia has two main messages. #1. Don’t get in a hurry when you visit the license office—especially in Zootopia where the DMV is staffed by sloths. (See trailer at top of this post.) #2. You can overcome stereotypes and be who you want to be. Judy, a bunny, is typically too small to be a cop. And Nick, a fox, turns to a life of deception because, well, foxes are scheming hustlers.

The film’s story centers around a group of predators who have reverted to their violent ways and are being caged on the edge of town. What’s causing them to go back to their instinctive states? Judy goes to work to solve the mystery and Nick pitches in.

Since this animal world is a metaphor for our human society, I wonder who the suddenly-wild-and-dangerous-again predators are supposed to represent. I don’t dare speculate here for fear of offending a particular race or ethnic group.

A few more of the talented voice cast members who populate Zootopia are Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer and, as a singing Gazelle called Gazelle, Shakira.

Zootopia, like the best animation efforts of the past few decades, has fun stuff for adults as well as kids. I suggest you view the film as a light amusement and don’t worry about messages or metaphors. Zootopia is not an all-time great, but it’s pretty good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Insurgent

 

Insurgent, as the 2nd film of a quadrilogy, is like a middle child in a family. The eldest and the baby get more attention and certain perks, so the middle children have to work hard to be noticed.

The main task of the second film of a series is to set up the final films. At the same time, there must be a few hooks to give the film an identity of its own. Insurgent manages to hit its marks on both counts.

Insurgent offers cool dream sequences (apparently inspired by Inception) and the addition of Naomi Watts (as a brunette!) to the cast. Not to mention… the two main characters act on their mutual attraction.

To refresh, civilization in this dystopian version of Chicago is based on all people being selected for one of five factions, according to personality testing. Those who crossover into multiple categories are referred to as Divergent. In the 2014 film, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), after being pegged as Divergent, chooses the Dauntless faction, where she meets and falls in love with Four (Theo James).

As we pick up the action in the new film, Tris and Four are living on the run, away from the city, where political turmoil is wreaking havoc. Erudite faction leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is now in charge. Upon their return to the bombed out landscape of Chi-town, the pair meet up with Evelyn (Watts) who leads the factionless brigade. She is also revealed to be Four’s mother, though their relationship is far from warm.

The film’s highlights include trials conducted by Candor faction leader Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim) with heavy doses of truth serum injected before testimony. Later, the sequences that occur after Tris turns herself into Jeanine for more faction testing are fun to watch as Tris’ mind goes through weird dreams. They are even trippier than the effects that present the opening production logos.

Woodley, Winslet and Watts are the acting stars among a large cast that also includes Miles Teller, Ashley Judd and Octavia Spencer.

As a fan of dystopian future settings, I like this one. (Although it seems odd that most of the bombed-out building shells are still standing 200 years after the destructive war.) The POV flight through the dried-up Chicago River bed isn’t quite as thrilling as the zipline ride from the top of the Hancock building in Divergent, but it does present a creative vision.

While Divergent focused on introducing the characters and the scenario, Insurgent seems more concerned with advancing the storyline. The film, which is violent throughout, ends with a bang as a new political coalition stands by to be fully realized in Allegiant—Part 1. That film will comes to theaters in March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Or White

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to hug Octavia Spencer.

Black Or White is a message movie, yes, but not as heavy handed and unrelenting as many such films tend to be. There’s humanity and love here to counterbalance the resentments and grudges.

Elliott Anderson (Kevin Costner) is an L.A. attorney. He and his wife have been raising his mixed race granddaughter, following his teen daughter’s death during childbirth. When Elliott’s wife is killed in a car crash, leaving grandpa to raise the girl by himself, the other grandma (who is African-American) Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) decides to seek custody.

A key element of Black Or White’s charm is the little girl Eloise (Jillian Estell) who is the subject of the custody battle. Estell is cute and she’s a good actor.

While the relationship among the grandparents has been respectful if not warm, Elliott still has hard feelings against Rowena’s son, Eloise’s father, Reggie (André Holland) who he blames for his daughter’s death. When Reggie joins in the custody battle, things turn ugly.

Complicating the situation is Elliott’s heavy drinking. In fact, he drafts Eloise’s tutor Duvan (Mpho Koaho) to serve as his driver when he’s too drunk to drive.

The always great Anthony Mackie is attorney Jeremiah Jeffers, representing Rowena and Reggie. Standup comic Bill Burr is surprisingly good as Rick Reynolds, Elliott’s friend, law firm partner and courtroom attorney.

Black Or White could have easily slipped into the talky melodrama of a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie, but with a busy plot and timely comic relief, it keeps up a good pace that should keep audiences engaged. Costner is the big star here, but Octavia Spencer is a joy to watch onscreen. Her takes are priceless.

This is a movie that Costner helped bankroll. He came to St. Louis, where racial polarization continues to bubble under, to promote the film and its message. Costner’s character says things that some white folks may have felt but never articulated. Rowena and her extended family are people who are easy to admire and respect. Black Or White presents a story that should entertain as well as provide a few things for everyone—black or white—to think about.