2016 was the best year for Disney animation in a very long time, and it pleases me to no end that I’m able to say that. Walt Disney Animation began the year giving furries their new generation-defining obsession in Zootopia, which was also an all-around excellent film; in June, Pixar Animation rebounded with their best sequel since Toy Story 2; and in November Walt Disney dropped Moana, a celebration of Pacific Island culture loaded with an infectious soundtrack of great songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. After losing their way a little bit with the ascendancy of Pixar, Walt Disney is in a great state of creative flow right now; their current brain trust has proven that the studio is in excellent hands.
When I write about the things I really love I have a tendency to gush; I’ll try not to do that too much here, but seriously you guys Zootopia is one of my absolute favorite movies in the last 15 years or so. It hits just about every sweet spot I can think of: there’s an adorable, inspiring rabbit protagonist; the theme of the story tackles issues of prejudice both inherent and hidden directly and responsibly; the world-building is so strong it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with what’s presented and imagine what life is like outside of the story; and the size difference is baked into the setting in ways that are just incredible. It’s the total package, and joins Robin Hood (1973) and The Lion King (1994) as the Disney film that serves as an entry point for a whole generation of folks in the fandom.
What Zootopia has over the previous two, however, is a story that bakes in the themes of tolerance and community building right from the jump. Judy Hopps, our intrepid heroine, dreams of living in Zootopia — where anyone can be anything — and joining the police force. Being a police officer is a fairly dangerous job, and it’s typically reserved for the largest animals, but Judy is determined to be the first rabbit officer in the city’s history. She works incredibly hard, and makes the force! However, that victory is short-lived; she’s given parking duty even though she knows she’s capable of so much more.
Judy takes on the case of missing otter Emmitt Otterton against the wishes of her superior officer, Chief Bogo, and her line of questioning pairs her up with Nick Wilde, a street-hustling fox who can navigate the many different strata the city encompasses. Both Nick and Judy need to solve the mystery to prevent their lives from being turned upside down; if Judy doesn’t do so, she’ll lose her job, and Nick will be reported to the Zootopian equivalent of the IRS if he doesn’t help her. Over time, of course, they learn to appreciate and support one another, even though it’s an incredibly rough road to get there.
What makes Zootopia so exciting is that it’s a perfect marriage of plot, character, and setting. You could not tell the story the same way if the setting were different, or without Judy and Nick specifically. Judy Hopps is one of the all-time-great Disney protagonists; she’s Leslie Knope as a purple-eyed rabbit. Nick Wilde is a character I personally identify with — carnivores are a minority in this world, and foxes in particular aren’t well-trusted due to the stereotype. His early dream of being a Cub Scout was dashed by a heartbreaking encounter with bullies, and his idealism was beaten out of him right then and there. Where Judy learned to persevere against the social forces pushing against her, Nick shrugged and fell into the box society pushed him into. While you’d think that Nick would have the bigger arc of learning to believe in himself and make good, Judy’s upbringing as an herbivore gives her blind spots that she has to confront and overcome as well.
How Judy handles her mistake and its consequences is what really elevates the character and the story of Zootopia, and provides one of its most inspiring moments. In fact, there are numerous instances where characters are checked for social faux pas; both the way they’re alerted to the transgression and their responses are wonderful examples of how these interactions should go in an ideal world. Zootopia isn’t perfect, but most of the animals genuinely try to get along. In both their successes and failures, there are real-world parallels that we can readily recognize.
The movie, of course, is simply gorgeous. The world of Zootopia is one of the best-realized furry societies ever created, with a wide variety of animals living in a number of different biomes and in buildings designed for a dizzying array of sizes — from mice and shrews just a few inches tall to giant multi-ton elephants and 20-foot giraffes. What’s interesting is how natural the society seems, even when they’re playing with the distinctive problems that would arise with such vast size differences. Each species feels unique but part of a cohesive whole.
The plot, ultimately, hinges on the warring impulses within each of us to accept and celebrate our differences or give in to fear and alienation. Both Nick and Judy want to be the heroes in their own story, and both of them are faced with a society that doesn’t want to let them do that for various reasons. Judy, not just through her beliefs, but through her actions, convinces everyone around her to try to be better. It’s such a simple, yet difficult, thing, but she proves that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Zootopia is an incredibly furry movie, but it’s also not a shallow one. The presentation of a furry society is a near-perfect modern fable that we can apply to our own lives and social realities, and the fact that the character design and world-building are both incredibly appealing doesn’t hurt either. This is a quintessential Disney movie, a perfect example of what the House of Mouse can do when it’s at its best.
Finding Dory (2016)
I was fairly ambivalent about Finding Dory when it was first announced. Pixar had been dipping into the sequel well fairly often by that time, and a bit of the shine had come off the company. While Monsters University was decent, it wasn’t essential; going back to the world of Finding Nemo could retroactively tarnish the legacy of the first film. When Finding Dory was finally released in the summer of 2016, it was received really well; to this date, it’s got a 94% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and boasts the biggest opening and highest gross ever for a Pixar film. Andrew Stanton was very gunshy about a sequel; he wanted to be sure he had the perfect story before moving ahead. Finding Dory was well worth the wait.
The movie takes place one year after the events of Finding Nemo, and while life on the reef is more or less back to normal there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Marlin still struggles to deal with Dory, though Nemo has a much better rapport with her. During a school field trip, Dory has a flashback that reminds her she has parents; desperate to find them, she enlists the help of Marlin and Nemo to travel across the sea to California. They manage to make it all the way to their destination before they’re separated; Dory has to find her way back to her family on her own, while Marlin and Nemo have to find her.
Finding Dory handles interactions with people with disabilities the same way Zootopia handles interactions between people of different backgrounds. Dory’s parents are unfailingly patient and supportive, though they worry about how Dory is going to fare out in the world without them. Marlin’s neurotic need for safety and certainty proves to be a hindrance, not just for Dory but for Nemo as well; watching his father’s reaction to Dory makes him think his dad feels the same way about his limitations. The lesson, as difficult as it can be to learn, is that people with disabilities — even mental ones — navigate the world in a different way. While that can cause difficulties, it’s not impossible to manage. It just takes careful attention and sustained effort to learn how to interact in a way that works for everyone.
Dory meets a host of characters who have disabilities or ailments that makes the world feel like a hard place to succeed in. There’s an octopus whose introversion has curdled into misanthropy; a near-sighted whale shark who keeps bumping into things; a beluga whale who believes his sonar is broken; and a very special bird you’re never quite sure is capable of understanding what you’re saying. Each of them learns how to deal with themselves through Dory’s influence; Dory herself has to trust in herself (and the lessons she can remember) in order to find her way back to anything familiar.
The animation for Finding Dory is simply beautiful; it’s astonishing to think how far Pixar has come with water, fur, wet and dry textures, even lighting effects in such a short time. All that technical wizardry is in service to the story, which provides an incredible visual theme to reflect the mental state of the characters. Open water as a metaphor for their internal life comes back again and again, and each appearance is more powerful.
The writing in the film is breathtaking; dialogue is sharp and witty, but also resonant. Everything said influences the characters who hear them, and lines are weighted with double and triple meanings. What we take from Finding Dory is that what we say to one another matters more than we might ever understand; a kind word or off-handed put-down can lodge in someone’s brain, ready to be recalled in moments of crisis. Our encouragement or dismissal can be the thing that tips someone towards success or failure.
It underscores the necessity of kindness, of considerate speech, of encouragement and support — especially for those of us who have disabilities or illnesses. Finding Dory is a movie that could actually change the mindset of the young audience who views it, teaching them empathy and the consequences of cruelty in a way very few children’s films even attempt. Dory’s adventure, and the lessons everyone involved learn along the way, elevates both this film and its prequel. That’s an exceedingly rare thing.
It’s possible that of the three movies Pixar and Disney released last year, Finding Dory might end up being the one that’s overlooked. But I hope not. This is one of the best Pixar films to date, period; even though the decade of dominance looks to be over, they’ve still got it.
Hats off to Ron Clements and John Musker for creating such a wonderful film that highlights the culture of Pacific Islanders without exploiting them. Well, for the most part. Moana is a wonderful film that features Pacific Island mythology, talent, language and culture. The voice talent is loaded with Pacific Islanders, the songs are written in English, Samoan and Tokelauan, and Taika Waititi (a Maori New Zealander) wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Even as Clements and Musker took over story duties (the writing credit eventually went to Jared Bush), they took care to run almost every decision through an Oceanic Story Trust to make sure they were being sensitive. The result is a great movie that is truly unique in animation, a popular entertainment that features only people of color.
Moana is the headstrong princess of an island nation; her father is grooming her for rulership of her people, but there’s something about the open ocean that keeps calling to her. When a blight threatens the food supply for the island, she disobeys her father’s forbiddance and takes a ship to find Maui the demi-god so she can force him to restore the heart of Te Fiti and cure the damage he caused. Maui, being the trickster he is, would much rather steal Moana’s boat to escape the island where he’s been exiled. Forces align to push them together, however, so off they go!
The music for Moana is incredibly catchy, inspiring and beautiful — no surprise, when it was written and arranged in part by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. The soundtrack peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200, which doesn’t happen that often for movies these days. “How Far I’ll Go” is such an excellent song for Moana, full of longing, hope and determination; those themes ripple through the rest of the movie, underpinning her entire character arc. Music propels much of the action, providing characters with truly memorable introductions and anchoring set pieces amazingly well. The soundtrack really is Moana‘s secret weapon; it allows us to connect to the action on the screen with ease.
The story itself is a mythic hero’s journey with Pacific Island trappings, told with sure-footed pacing and a joyous, colorful style. What’s impressive is that Moana and Maui must battle their own worst impulses as much as the monsters and gods that seek their failure; the internal struggle is every bit as important as the outsized beings they run up against. Again, themes of self-respect and support are essential to these characters, but they take on a heightened poignancy thanks to today’s political climate. There is almost no popular fiction celebrating women of color or providing them a role model to emulate, so the fact that Moana drives so much of the journey through sheer will is quietly revolutionary.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kills it as Maui, of course, and now that I’m thinking about the voice talent there isn’t a false note anywhere. Jermaine Clement makes a memorable turn as a giant crab, and The Rock can belt out a tune when called upon to do so. It’s the best surprise, and I’ll always cheer loudly when people of color are allowed to show just how excellent they can be when given the platform to do so.
I’ve talked a lot about how important Moana is for its cultural context, but honestly it’s just a fantastic movie — Moana belongs in the Princess pantheon right alongside Belle, Elsa and Tiana. Disney’s focus on proactive, inspiring women in their stories is a very welcome trend, and Moana is the latest example of how telling great tales with diverse casts should be done.