Disney+

Zootropolis

12/01/21

Disney +

Our recent flirtation with the House of Mouse affords us the opportunity to investigate some of the Disney product we’ve previously missed. Zootropolis seems worthy of investigation. There are several people out there (you know who you are) who’ve urged us to give it a try and, for no other reason than the fact that – pre-Covid – we were somewhat spoiled for choice, we have chosen to ignore them.

We no longer have that excuse. And of course, it turns out our friends were right. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

In a world where all animals happily co-exist, young rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up with one overpowering ambition: to become a police officer. Her carrot-farming parents are really not keen on the idea. Bunnies, they insist, are meek and cute, and not cut out for such shenanigans. But Judy is determined and, sure enough, after graduating valedictorian from the police academy, she heads off to the city of Zootropolis to start her new career.

The titular city, by the way, is the film’s most glorious achievement. A fully-realised environment divided into different sectors – desert, rain forest, tundra – it’s all rendered in eye-popping animation with extraordinary attention to detail. Watching it, you can almost believe it exists.

Judy arrives at her police precinct all ready to go, but the stern Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) clearly shares her parents’ views of what a bunny is capable of and promptly assigns her to parking duties. She applies herself to the task, and soon encounters the streetwise Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who has devised his own ways of making a living by skirting very, VERY close to the edges of the law.

When a series of mysterious disappearances occur around the city, Judy spots an opportunity to step up her career a couple of notches and cunningly blackmails Nick into helping her investigate the situation. They soon realises that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed…

Zootropolis is enormously appealing – a bizarre marriage between a futuristic sci-fi adventure and an old fashioned noir mystery. Look out for a delightful spoof of The Godfather in the engaging form of Mr Big (Maurice LaMarche) and relish the scene where Judy and Nick visit an information department serviced exclusively by sloths, led by Flash (Raymond S. Persi). You’ll giggle too at an appearance by Tommy Chong as a fly-infested yak, the manager of a… health spa.

Of course, there’s another of those famous Disney ‘messages’ embedded in this tale – a subtext that warns of the dangers of making cultural and racial assumptions, and how every individual deserves the personal freedom to pursue what interests them. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s an important message, isn’t it, and maybe subtlety isn’t always appropriate.

At any rate, it’s great fun and it’s chock full of invention. If, like me, you’ve put this onto the back (bunny) boiler, now might be the perfect time to try it out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Onward

09/01/21

Disney +

The release of Onward couldn’t have been more disastrously timed. We were all set to view it in an actual movie theatre when the pandemic hit big and cinemas had to close their doors. Now here it is on Disney +, and, like so many of its illustrious Pixar brethren, this is a fabulous slice of family-friendly entertainment with a brilliant concept at its core.

The story takes place in a fantasy world, where magic has somehow become unappreciated by its exotic inhabitants. Here, unicorns are simply pesky critters that regularly raid the dustbins, ancient artefacts are best sourced in thrift stores, and the local Manticore’s tavern has been styled to look like TGI Friday’s, complete with a karaoke machine.

Elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) reaches his sixteenth birthday, but feels too self-conscious to invite his friends from high school to his party. He’s also somewhat overshadowed by his brash older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with fantasy role-playing games and seems to feel it’s his duty to embarrass his younger bro at every opportunity. The boys’ mom, Laurel (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), has her hands full keeping the peace. Since the untimely death of her first husband, Wilden, she’s remarried to clumsy centaur cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a nice guy whose speciality seems to be knocking over the furniture. Ian, meanwhile, is still mourning the death of Wilden, who died just after he was born. It irks him that Barley has something he has never enjoyed – memories of their father.

But one of Ian’s birthday presents is an ancient staff, containing a rare Phoenix gem – something that, if used correctly, can conjure a ‘visitation spell.’ It has the power to bring Wilden back for just one day. When the boys attempt to use the staff, something goes disastrously wrong and they are obliged to embark on a perilous quest in order to rectify their error.

They have twenty-four hours. As the time ticks steadily away, their mission becomes ever more complicated…

What ensues is the usual Pixar mix of broad comedy and bitter-sweet sentiment – the boys encounter legions of mythological characters along the way (including Octavia Spencer’s Manticore and a bunch of motorbike-riding sprites). There are frantic chases and gasp-inducing perils for the boys to overcome and, as their time begins to run out, some genuine suspense is generated. Of course, this being a Pixar film, there’s also a central message and it’s to the writers’ credit that, near the film’s conclusion, they opt to pull off something really daring and manage it with aplomb.

This is exactly what’s needed right now. Brilliantly crafted, deceptively simple, heartwarming and, above all, great fun. In these harrowing times, what more can we reasonably ask?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mulan

05/01/21

Disney+

I’ve never seen Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan, but my stepdaughter loves it and I trust her judgement, so I’m predisposed to like this live action version of the tale, directed by Niki Caro.

The story is based on an old Chinese folk tale, The Ballad of Mulan, created in the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). It tells the tale of the titular Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can fight in the Imperial Army and save the dynasty from the Rouran warriors.

Mulan has always possessed the chi that marks out the greatest soldiers, but the patriarchal society she lives in demands that both men and women adhere to strict gender roles, and women are definitely not supposed to fight. Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, but she doesn’t want to wear fancy make-up or restrictive clothing; she’s not interested in learning how to pour tea with decorum, nor in acquiring any of the other skills needed to ‘make a match.’ She doesn’t want to be a wife; she wants to rise, phoenix-like, and become a warrior. So, when it looks like her ailing father might be pressed into battle, she steals his call-up papers and his sword, and sets off on her mission.

It’s a charming story, beautifully told. Yifei Liu is luminous as the eponymous heroine, her quiet determination both convincing and impressive. And this is more than just a worn-out, that-old-chestnut, girl-pretends-to-be-a-boy type thing, because – despite its historical origins – this is very much a story for our times, showing clearly how people – all people – need to be allowed to pursue their passions, and to realise their own natures. Indeed, in the form of hawk-witch Xianniang (Li Gong), we are given a very stark (and not very subtle) warning as to how destructive it can be when we are forced to deny our true selves: this is a woman made of fury, doomed to a life as an outcast, and desperate for revenge.

The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed by Mandy Walker, a brutal ballet of physical perfection. The battle:story ratio seems well-judged: there’s not too much for me (I tend to get bored watching protracted fights), but there’s plenty for martial arts fans. Philip’s especially delighted to see veteran stars given roles with appropriate gravitas, namely Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Jet Li as the Emperor and Jason Scott Lee as their formidable foe, Böri Khan.

The CGI hawk and phoenix are skilfully rendered, adding an interesting element of mysticism to what is essentially – in this incarnation – a realistic tale. And the relationships between the characters are nuanced and compelling, with almost everyone open to learning and accepting new norms and ideas.

For me, this is a genuine pleasure. I guess I’d better watch the animated version now…

4.1 stars

Susan