So far, 2016 is bursting with great animated films. It started off in March with Zootropolis, followed by The Secret Life of Pets in June, and Finding Dory finally swam into UK cinemas at the end of July. With future releases like Moana, Trolls and Kubo and the Two Strings still to come, it’s too early to name a winner, but for now we can look back and marvel at the computer-animated creations released so far. Whether it is about a group of abandoned pets gone rogue, a fish doing some underwater soul-searching, or a politically divided animal-city – all three films comment on human society through their anthropomorphic animal characters.
The film Zootropolis – Zootopia in other countries but it was changed to ‘a unique title that works for UK audiences’ (which is all they wanted to say about it) – is Disney Animation’s latest release. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore and co-directed by Jared Bush it stars the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman as main characters rabbit Judy and fox Nick, while England’s own Idris Elba shines as angry buffalo Chief Bogo. The film is about a bunny cop who has to prove herself in the job, and must work together with a wily fox to uncover a widespread conspiracy that involves the disappearance of certain predator civilians. This all takes place in – surprise – Zootropolis, a vibrant anthropomorphic animal-city that was created from elements of several metropolitan cities around the world (including New York, Dubai and Moscow), making for a visually stunning setting. However, what makes this adventurous detective story truly great is its dynamic duo of Judy and Nick; their chemistry easily surpasses that of most of the general romcom-coupling we see in cinema today. And don’t be fooled by some of the hilarious animals-as-humans gags (like the city’s secret nudist club and civil servant sloths) or its comical references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad (yellow jumpsuits guaranteed): the film has an important story to tell. It doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, including racism, sexism and the ‘othering’ of groups, but instead confronts them head-on, while retaining an optimistic spirit throughout the film. Even though some of its commentary on human society might seem a bit obvious at times, and Shakira’s soundtrack ‘Try Everything’ is awfully sugar-coating, it’s a must-see for any (animated) film lover.
The Secret Life of Pets
Even though the name ‘Illumination’ seems synonymous with the Despicable Me and Minions franchise, the production company’s newest release, directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, explores a whole new area: as the title already gives away, it is essentially about what pets supposedly do while their owners are at work. Which is, in the case of a terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), not much. His daily activity of waiting for his owner to come home seems satisfying enough – until she brings a large stray dog with her, named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), setting in motion a Toy Story-like narrative: Max and Duke don’t get along (as Max feels threatened and afraid his owner might prefer Duke over him), and due to the fight that follows they end up getting lost, only to figure out, in the end, that they need to overcome their differences to find their way home together. Sounds familiar? Unfortunately, despite the similar storyline, Max and Duke are not half as well-developed or interesting characters as Woody and Buzz, which brings us to the big support cast of the other animal characters that conveniently draw away some of the attention. Among those is Snowball, a gang-leading bunny hilariously voiced by Kevin Hart, and the main reason to watch the film. He rescues Max and Duke from Animal Control and makes them join his anti-human gang of abandoned former pets (living under the motto of ‘liberated forever, domesticated never’). This is followed by a sequence of hilarious moments (Snowball’s paying of tribute to the dead ‘gangster’ goose Ricky is a personal favourite), while the underlying message about the abandoning of pets is never really explored any deeper. Even though humour is definitely the film’s selling point, the technical animation of both the city of New York and the characters, their fur in particular, is worth a watch.
Disney and Pixar’s Finding Dory is the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo – 13 years to be exact – in which Dory, still voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, has gone from quirky sidekick to the very star of the underwater world. The film is directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane and again stars Albert Brooks, as Nemo’s dad Marley, while Ed O’Neill voices the newly introduced character of cranky but lovely old octopus Hank. If that’s not enough to draw you in, Dominic West and Idris Elba – whose voice Disney can’t get enough of (he also recently starred as tiger Shere Khan in the live-action version of Jungle Book) – form a great pair of comical sea lions. As the title suggests, the film is not just about Dory’s search for her long-lost parents, but also about finding herself through her suffering of short-term memory loss – a spiritual quest visualised by many flashbacks of her much younger self – while discovering the true meaning of the word ‘family.’ Stanton has already proven himself to be a master manipulator of emotions, first with Finding Nemo and later with the endearing film Wall-E. And he has done it again: baby Dory is the most adorable little creature you have ever seen (and heard!) and your heart will shatter into a thousand little pieces when you’ll see her, lost in that big blue ocean (much like the one your own uncontrollable sobs will be making on your chair), as it paints a disturbing picture of a disabled child left on her own. The depth of the ocean is a perfect backdrop for the visualisation of losing one’s memory, and therefore oneself, adding a deeper layer of melancholy to the film. Sadly, the film never picks up on the ambiguous state of affairs left between Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo (missing one hell of an opportunity to explore an inter-species love angle, like Zootropolis did). The story also seems to be stretched at times and – with its characters that seem to enjoy the constant losing and finding of one another – quite repetitive. Nevertheless, the spectacularly animated underwater world we first saw in Finding Nemo has become even more impressive; Pixar shows once again the remarkable technical quality of its films.
All three films show the ever-increasing quality and possibilities of computer animation today while bearing important messages. While Finding Dory will surely get those tears flowing, and Life of Pets might cause some truly hysterical laughter, it is Zootropolis that manages to do both while touching upon not just one, but multiple heavy socio-political topics that are especially important to address in our society today. Or, as Mr. Big, the Vito Corleone-like rat, would say: ‘My child, we may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.’