Zootopia (2016): Best Animated Film of the Year (Review)

Judy, Nick and Flash at the DMV

It is the mark of any good animated feature that the viewer forgets they are watching a “cartoon.” Pixar does this with amazing regularity, as does Studio Ghibli. However, Walt Disney Studios got there first, with Uncle Walt churning out animated films that tugged the heartstrings and featured stunning stories.

Walt’s films made us all forget about the unreality of singing mice and evil stepmothers who really were witches. We believed the stories being told implicitly.

(While we are waxing lyrical about animated features that make us forget that the universe we have entered is full of cartoon animals, the 2011 animated feature Rango was not produced by Disney or Pixar, it was a joint effort from several studios that included Paramount and Nickelodeon. This film was also a cartoon but one for the older audience members.)

With a staggering nine writers credited for creating the story and no less than three directors, Zootopia should have been 2016’s biggest flop. There are too many cooks and then there are way too many cooks, both of which normally spoil any broth.

This is not the case with this brilliantly told tale of a rabbit daring to dream of becoming a police officer in Zootopia. Judy Hopps, played by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin, leaves her parent’s farm and graduates as valedictorian from the police academy. 

She is made the Zootopia meter maid and a chance encounter with a robber turns her career around. But it is not easy. The beleaguered bunny has to fight Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) every hop of the way. Judy enlists the aid of conman fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and together they solve the mystery of the missing mammals. 

There is something here for a wide range of audience members. Themes include moving away from home for the first time and daring to chase your dreams. The dangers of stereotyping and the animal version of racism is also broached.

Over and above these lofty lessons provided by the nine writers on the film is the story. It keeps things interesting enough that even at a staggering 108 minutes, the film never drags.

The voice acting and the film’s three directors: Byron HowardRich Moore and Jared Bush (who are, incidentally three of the nine names associated with writing the film) manage to keep the action rolling, the story moving and still make the characters interesting. 

There are a couple of pretty decent plot twists and a plethora of sight gags, jokes and ironic moments.  Zootopia is, in essence, a product that could be seen as nigh on perfect.

Some gags are comprised of the filmmakers trotting out film tropes for a giggle. The tiny Mr. Big, an animal with enormous muscle to enforce his orders appears to be a shrew or a vole, both of which are very, very small.

The film is rated PG, no doubt for some of the more white knuckle antics of the film. Add to the frantic action some transformation scenes that might frighten the younger members of the audience and the rating makes perfect sense.

What makes Zootopia work so well though is the story.  It cracks along and works so brilliantly  that it is easy to forget we are watching cartoon animals.  The dialogue as well as the action moves the audience into a place where the animated bunny and her friends cease to become a factor.

There are some brilliant cameos in the film. Keep an ear out for perennial stoner extraordinaire Tommy Chong,  the delightful Alan Tudyk and the Oscar winning  J.K. Simmons to name but a few of the familiar voices in the film. 

Zootopia earns a full 5 stars. This is a Mary Poppins film – practically perfect in every way. It is streaming on Netflix at the moment and really deserves a look, or two…or more.  This is just one great big bit of fun that should not be missed.

The Gift (2015): Unsatisfying Karma (Review)

Jason Bateman in The Gift

Aussie performer Joel Edgerton  wrote and directed this mystery/thriller and considering that this is his first feature length film behind the lens, and it front of it, The Gift does very well indeed. It is, unfortunately, a karmic film that ends on a rather unsatisfactory note. When all is said and done, we the audience really want something more. An end that befits this bullying and manipulative douche on two legs.

There is a twist in this tale about bullying and the film’s overall message is that a leopard cannot and will not change its spots.  Starring Jason Bateman, Brit actress Rebecca Hall, Edgerton and Fargo star Allison Tolman The Gift entertains but loses steam midway through once we figure out what is really going on. 

Simon and Robyn are a young and successful couple who have put recent tragedy behind them and moved to Los Angeles. Simon (Bateman)  has a new job and Robyn (Hall) works from home.

The couple buy a lovely clifftop house and as they buy furniture and essentials for their new palace, they bump into Gordon (Edgerton). “Gordo” remembers Simon from high school and he offers up his phone number. Simon is uncomfortable as he cannot really remember the other man, he says.

Gordon begins insinuating himself into Rebecca and Simon’s life, giving them  gifts and stopping by to visit with Rebecca. Things soon begin to go sour and Simon, despite coming across as a nice guy, reveals a side that is a tad unpleasant.

A lot of mystery and suspense is built up by the audience, as well as Simon and Rebecca, wondering just what Gordo is up to.  Other questions arise as it appears that Simon knows a lot more about Gordon than he admits.

In many ways “The Gift” feels an awful lot like the anatomy of a bully.  For anyone ever bullied in school, the film’s message that bullies never change, may be a bit daunting. There, however,  is a small silver lining to this metaphorical cloud.  While they may not change bullies do not, apparently, get any smarter either.

At first the mystery is engaging but as Rebecca begins to do a little digging,  things begin to slow down . It is here that the film begins to reach that unsatisfactory stage. The final act leaves one man “broken” and another satisfied with his actions. Sadly the end  feels a bit of an anti-climax.

Like horror films that hesitate to reveal what is behind that door, the ending of The Gift does something similar.  The punishment meted out is pretty devastating but ultimately one wishes for so much more. Ergo the end is an unsatisfactory bit of karmic justice that while  devastating could have been so much worse.

Bateman, Hall and Edgerton do well with their respective performances.  The director does a capable job in front of and behind the camera.  Gordo comes across as a mix of “kicked mongrel” and  obsequious  stalker.

The many gifts he bestows on the couple make us uncomfortable.  If there is any complaint about the film, it would be that the plot is spelled out too well. We learn, as Rebecca goes snooping around, that things are not what they appear at all.

These reveals, despite being spaced out, lead us to the conclusion well ahead of time. Regardless of this, The Gift is an entertaining film.

This is a solid 4 star film. It loses a full star due to its signposting being far too evident. The Gift is streaming on Hulu at the moment. Stop by and watch this one, it may be a tad unsatisfactory in the karma stakes but it is entertaining enough to pass muster overall.

This Is Where I Leave You: Jason Bateman and a Different Modern Family

This Is Where I Leave You can be seen as a different sort of modern family tale starring Jason Bateman, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Corey Stall, Rose Byrne, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda. Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum 1, 2 and 3) and adapted for the screen by the Jonathan Tropper, author of the book that the film is based on, is an amusing and sometimes awkward look at family life in the white collar world of the professional.

MikesFilmTalk Salutes Ellen Page

Cover of "Hard Candy"
Cover of Hard Candy

The first thing I ever saw Ellen Page in was the 2005 film Hard CandyHard Candy was like Sleuth  on drugs. Page turned in a tour de force performance that made me fall in love with her as an actress and fear her as a performer. It was plain that the young performer was already a seasoned actor and her co-star in the film, Patrick Wilson obviously had his work cut out for him.

Page was born February 21 1987 and she has been working professionally since 1997. If you look at her film and television credits you can see that this young Canadian actor has been busy. Not just working but working in the kind of films that makes sure folks notice you.

2007 was her busiest year to date, she worked in a total of five projects, three of which she was the ‘star’ player.

Juno , which had a wonderful cast: Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and J.K. Simmons, in which Page played a young teen who suddenly finds herself pregnant after her first sexual dalliance with Cera’s character. Ellen proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she could pull off a comedic role. Her timing was spot on and in my opinion she acted Michael Cera off the screen.

In An American Crime she played the doomed Sylvia Likens in the ‘true story’ of an urban nightmare that ends in murder endured by two girls in the 1960’s.

In the The Tracey Fragments she played 15 year old Tracey Berkowitz in a ‘coming of age’ film in which she must find her missing brother.

She was also in The Stone Angel and she provided her vocal talents for The Batman television series as an uncredited ‘additional voices’ according to IMDb.

After 2007 she continued to work steadily and she amassed a further five credits. Then in 2010 she worked on the film Inception.

Cover of
Cover of Inception

It was when I was starting to write a review on Inception that I got sidetracked by Page. I had an idle thought about her part and performance in the film. The idle thought was this, ‘Well at least they’re letting play her age for a change.’

That one thought made me look at her ‘track record’ and boy was it  impressive. While Hard Candy and Juno got her noticed, Inception raised her value as an actor just by being in the film. 2010 was her second busiest year with four projects to her credit.

From that year on she has averaged two projects per year.

Now she is joining an already long list of stars who are putting their voices (and in this case her image) in a video game. In  Quantic Dream‘s  Beyond: Two Souls  she provides her voice and likeness as Jodie Holmes, the main character in the game. But this is not the first time that Ellen’s features have been used in a game.

Naughty Dog ‘s  The Last of Us features a character that is the spitting image of Ellen Page. Quite flattering if not a little off putting game wise. Watching the trailer, I kept thinking what is Ellen Page doing there?

It was even worse when watching the trailer for Beyond: Two Souls. Every time Jode Holmes opened her mouth and Page’s voice came out of it, I again had that ‘what’s Ellen Page doing there’ moment. I have a feeling it might actually distract the player from David Cage‘s newest game.

Blessed with a youthful appearance that most female actors would kill for. Ellen will be able to play those teen and young adult parts for quite a few years yet. It is a little sad that, so far, only Inception has let her play her age. She is rapidly approaching her mid-twenties and she must be ‘chomping at the bit’ to play roles a bit older than she has historically been cast for.

So Ellen Page, MikesFilmTalk salutes you. I can’t wait to see what you work in next.

Ellen Page at the Paris premiere for Inception...

**This is a new feature on my site. If you like it or have a suggestion as to who I should salute, let me know.