Friday, March 17, 2017

Back From the Past: Samurai Jack Season Five Premiere Skirts the Edge of Reason

Even a beboppin' robot doesn't dull the dark edge of the new season
It has been 13 years in our time since Samurai Jack was on the air, but 50 years have passed in Jack's world.

It seems appropriate then, that our valiant time traveler should pop back to finish in detail what he began - the destruction of the (all together now) "Shapeshifting Master of Darkness" Aku. The long-touted 10-episode return of this sci-fi animated series occurred last Saturday, March 11, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. In episode 1 of Season 5, Jack roars back onto the screen, but isn't one bit triumphant. Gone is the simple white gi and magical sword. Gone is the smoothed back bun. Here, we have a wild man on a motorbike looking like he freshly drove off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. With a full beard and long black hair left to blow untethered in the wind, we get the sense our classically unruffled hero has finally HAD it with Aku and hacking around in the future. Phil LaMarr returns as Jack's stoical voice, and the episode opens with him saying in a strangled, breathless tone, "Gotta get back...back to the past." What was once a witty phrase for a fun theme song now sounds like a desperate mantra to maintain sanity. Even Aku as a bodily presence has vanished, and his loyal cult followers are in a veritable fervor for his great return. For now, he is merely a voice on the phone ( by Greg Baldwin, a successful recast from the original Japanese actor, Mako, who passed away in 2006). Even the wise-cracking, beboppin' robot Scaramouche, (show veteran Tom Kenny) wielding a sword that doubles as a tuning fork (!) can't dull the dark edge of this new season.

Even the comforting familiarity of "the bad old days" are gone. All is NOT as it should be. okay man?
Let's "back to the past" for a moment. I have loved this show ever since its debut during my college days in the early 2000s. Director Genndy Tartakovsky's influence is immediately recognizable - bright colors, sharp lines, and minimalist style. Who better to create an animated tale of a lone samurai?  While I enjoyed Tartakovsky's other ventures, such as The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, those shows I could take or leave. Nothing about them ever stuck with me. But Samurai Jack is different. An animated tapestry; it didn't look like anything else on TV and still doesn't. But aside from its visual appeal, what always set this series apart was it's reserved and effective ability to SHOW rather than tell a story. With elegant animation and well-conceived plots that balanced heavy themes such as gender issues and self-worth with humor and whimsy, it succeeds in both style and substance. I began to realize this was no ordinary show when I watched episode 6 of Season 1, "Jack and the Warrior Woman," where (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Aku transforms himself as a woman named Ikra who offers to "help" Jack steal a jewel for a higher, positive purpose. Jack is still new at this "saving the future" thing at this point, and he knows there's something off about Ikra, but he's wooed by her shapely body and her incredible battle skills. Plus, let's face it - Jack's a pretty lonely guy. As such, when Ikra reveals herself to be Aku at the end of the episode, you can tell he is rattled pretty bad - I mean, how easy can it be to handle having romantic/sexual feelings for your greatest enemy? (Side note: this episode also is a great example of the show's incredible creative ability to come up with an endless array of background characters - that dude with scorpions on his face in the opening montage is particularly badass.)

 Although the show ran for four seasons, it vanished as suddenly as it arrived. The show's wrap-up felt peremptory. Tartakovsky mentioned in a recent interview for NPR that he was "burned out" by the studio's creative differences at the time and other projects competing for his attention, so instead of struggling onward, decided to end the show in the most graceful way he could. But it was pretty clear there was still more to tell - and the show's fan base has agreed. 

While the show has classically tested Jack's psyche, it is clear from this first episode that this encore final season is going to show us exactly what Jack has been put through mentally as a result of Aku and - hopefully - how he will intend to rise above it. Being on Adult Swim - which was just a fledgling concept in the series' heyday -  has allowed the show to go into darker territory, which by doing so realizes its full potential rather than veering onto a radically different path. Despite our time-worn hero, Samurai Jack hasn't skipped a beat - it's just finally been allowed to become the grown-up show we always knew it could be.

For a limited time, you can stream the season as it airs here. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Current Reels: Everything is Awesome about The LEGO Batman Movie

The classic superteam buckle up for one wild ride! defines the word "earnest" as "serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous." No doubt The LEGO Batman Movie endeavors to be earnest in almost every aspect of geek culture.

Emmy-winner Chris McKay, who directed 2014's The LEGO Movie, is back in the driver's seat for this feature, bringing his wonderful knack for features that are both delightful for kids and kids at heart. In a little less than two hours, this film simultaneously succeeds in being a great Batman AND Lego movie as well as a parody of both. It is essentially a toast rather than a roast to the franchise. Much like the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series reboot, it is the magical result of a bunch of creative adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s given plenty of resources and time to play with.

The amount of detail thrown into this film is astounding. Limelighting a huge swath of genres from Harry Potter to Dr. Who to Lord of the Rings, no geeky stone is left unturned. Easter Egg surprises for diehard comic fans abound for those with an eagle eye. Lighthearted digs at the Marvel Universe abound- for example, the password for the Bat Cave is "Iron Man sucks" - a character often paralleled with Batman since they are both billionaire self-made superheroes. McKay and his creative team find any number of ways to pay homage to the Batman franchise through the ages, with throwbacks aplenty to the campiness of the 60s Adam West series, which I grew up watching as a kid on Nick at Nite. Even fans of rom-coms don't escape unscathed.

Obscure Batman villains such as "The Eraser" get time to shine
One would think so much detail would lend itself to a muddled mess, but the thoughtful pacing makes all the difference. While plenty of color and light gets thrown at the viewer,  it succeeds in not being a complete barrage on the senses. Taking a queue from this film's predecessor, McKay allows the action to wind down at critical points for thoughtful reflection on important themes such as the dangerous effects of self-inflicted solitude. While the quest for and importance of family (there's even a moment in the credits where the phrase 'Friends are the Family You Choose' pops up briefly) are well-worn tropes, this film's sincerity freshens it up. The animation by Animal Logic, an Australian company based in Sydney and Los Angeles, is a glorious marriage of computer animation and live LEGO sets. Even the flames shooting out from the city and the Bat Jet have the look and feel of plastic accessory molds.

Will Arnett returns to lend his gritty, sarcasm-laden vocal talents to the famed DC superhero, making him possibly the best character voice yet since Kevin Conroy, well-known for his work on the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Zach Galifianakis's take on The Joker makes him a sensitive psychopath, and under McKay's watchful eye we finally have a plot that meaningfully acknowledges the long-term twisted "bromance" between The Joker and Batman. Without giving away too much, The Joker ends up being the lynchpin that ultimately forces Batman/Bruce Wayne to address his deeper emotional issues rather than continuing to shut them down. In essence, all The Joker really wants is Batman to FEEL. The welcome presence of Harley Quinn as a badass supportive buddy (let's face it, this particular Joker is about as gay as one can get with a PG rating) encouraging "Mr. J" on his quest is a welcome change from the darker, often abusive relationship between the two. In truth, ALL the characters are genuinely likeable. Robin, as voiced by Michael Cera, succeeds in being the bouyant rather than boorish boy wonder; the subtle adult jokes about his given name "Dick" blissfully zooming over his head. A delightfully eclectic group featuring everyone from iPhone's "Siri" to Conan O'Brien, Eddie Izzard, and even Mariah Carey rounds out the talent admirably.

There is also a surprising amount of excellent music throughout the course of the film, from Batman beat-boxing to 80s hits such as the late great Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as well as the surprisingly complex, soaring orchestral music Scottish composer Lorne Balfe (read more about his involvement here.)

Jackaroo sez: The warmth and heart of the clever story runs concurrent with the humor and action, rather than underneath or above it. In poking fun at itself, it may succeed in being the best Batman movie yet. Only major flaw - needs more Catwoman! 



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Year, New Adventures, and Hunting for the Wilderpeople

Sam Neill roughs it in New Zealand with Julian Dennison
 "The art of survival is a story that never ends."  - Christian Bale, American Hustle

 It's been awhile, friends. Many things have happened since my last update - getting married, my father having unexpected major surgery and recovery over the Christmas holidays, and the most dramatic - moving to Hong Kong. My now-husband accepted a teaching position at HK Polytechnic University in the Kowloon section of the city, and now I'm writing and editing from the other side of the world. It's amazing how the sea of life tugs you into the undertow, and things that are important  - like my writing, like this blog - get lost in the quest for survival.

But now we are officially into the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster here in Asia, which calls upon us to take "intuitive action" - precisely what writing is. My New Year resolutions are to spend more time loving and doing activities that I love, such as writing for you, my dear readers. As the lit-up Samsung sign in Hong Kong Harbor told me my second day here, "Be Fearless." Fresh starts my loves! Without further ado, enjoy my review of Hunt for the Wilderpeople - an indie feature by Majestical Pictures Limited I was lucky enough to watch on the plane ride over to Hong Kong (make the most of the journey!) that speaks to the personal themes in my life lately - survival, family, and learning what's truly important. 

What could a wise-cracking city teenager and a cantankerous old man have in common? A penchant for trouble, of course! Hip-hop loving orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) doesn’t expect much when he gets sent to his latest foster home in the wilds of New Zealand (filmed entirely on location) that includes warm-hearted Bella, (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill), a disgruntled backwoodsman who'd much rather spend time with his beloved dog Zag than this chubby city slicker kid. However just as Ricky becomes accustomed to his quirky new family, tragedy prompts the authorities to send him packing. Ultimately, Hec and Ricky decide to make a run for it along with their dogs, prompting a nationwide manhunt, misunderstandings, and general hilarity.
Ricky gets down to business.

Making a movie that succeeds in being thoughtful and funny is no easy task, and yet "Wilderpeople" does it effortlessly. The overarching theme is that family is what you make of it.The lush cinematography of the New Zealand countryside are worth the watch alone, but the brilliant chemistry between Hec and Ricky is what makes "Wilderpeople" a standout. Neill has long been a favorite of mine, ever since his turn as Merlin in the 1998 miniseries, with a penetrating gaze that always looks untamed. His deadly serious demeanor coupled with Ricky's happy-go-lucky attitude makes for humor that is both biting and self-deprecating.  At one point when Ricky and Hec are hiding under some brush to escape officials scouting the woods, Ricky likens the moment to when Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits are hiding from the Ring Wraiths in the Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring movie - also filmed in New Zealand - a reference which of course goes straight over Hec's head.

The supporting characters hold their own - Rachel House is wonderful as Paula, the stone-cold director of the child welfare service determined to get Ricky back by any means necessary - whether with trail mix or a SWAT team. As the weeks turn into months, the strange duo find themselves increasingly relying on the kindness of strangers, many of whom are a more than a little strange themselves - such as Psycho Sam, played with brilliant abandon by Rys Darby.

(HERE THERE BE MINOR SPOILERS MATEY): Bella's death is paradoxically both perfunctory and profound. How and why she died is left to the imagination of the viewer, because what is truly important to the story is the different ways Ricky and Hec react and grieve her passing, and it is the results of those reactions that give her too brief role in the story great meaning. (HERE ENDS THE SPOILER).

Underneath the ridiculousness runs strong themes of family ties and how those bonds of love can be tested and ultimately, triumph in the face of life's challenges. Ricky learns how to rough it in nature, gaining Hec's respect, and Hec learns how to love again. Currently available on DVD and streaming.

Jackaroo sez: While lesser films would try to tack on a tidy wrap-up moral lesson for the viewers to take home, "Wilderpeople" is an organic adventure about the messiness of life, how we survive, and the people along the way that help us do so.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween Retro Reel Review: Meet Joe Black is "A Whisper of a Thrill"

Something wicked this way comes - Brad Pitt takes a turn playing Death 
Meet Joe Black, by every conventional critic wisdom, should not be a good movie. Nothing short of a sweeping epic should be three hours long, it is glacially paced, and truth be told, not a whole lot happens. It centers around the lives of people that have more money than I will ever have, and has cornball written all over it. And yet, it is hypnotic; mesmerizing - and two hours in, I found myself unable to look away. Why?

Loosely based on the 1934 (and far more light-hearted) film Death Takes a Holiday, an impossibly young Brad Pitt plays Death, who has come for William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a communications tycoon who is just about to turn 65. Death makes a deal with William, saying that he will let him live until his birthday if he acts as Death's guide into the world of humans. Parrish, not having much of a choice, agrees to the deal. When Death insists upon meeting his family and business associates, William is forced to come up with a code name - Joe Black. Joe slowly infiltrates himself into every area of William's life - including his daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).

What comes next is a great deal of meaningful glances, gorgeous cinematography, and some seriously awkward moments. Pitt does an admirable job acting like someone who is not used to being in a human body. He stares too long with those uncanny blue eyes, has stilted movements, and - as is only appropriate for Death - makes people uncomfortable with his presence. There's a solemnity Pitt brings to the role that belies his young age at the time of this movie. Watching Hopkins and Pitt in a scene together is like watching two great lions trying to outdo each other in the ring - they both have such a powerful presence in and of themselves that the lush scenery they are surrounded with almost feels like overkill (no pun intended). It is directed by Martin Brest, who is also known for Scent of a Woman, one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. If there's one thing Brest loves more than anything it is human interaction. How do people relate to one another, and why? Brest is a genius at bringing out the best in his actors, and combined with a thoughtful screenplay, what they don't say to one another is as equally important as what they do say. Brest teams up once again with Thomas Newman (who adores clarinet solos, mandolins, and minor keys) to compose one helluva score for Meet Joe Black that should be counted in the cast list due to his haunting themes doing most of the talking during the several scenes of extended silences. FUN FACT: Thomas Newman also composed the music for Road to Perdition - also on my top 10 list. His work is always haunting, sweeping, and unforgettable.

It is no mistake the three central characters - Parrish, Susan, and Joe - are never in the same frame for very long. The characters are quite literally having their own personal experiences with Death; and those experiences cannot easily be shared in the same physical space. (MINOR SPOILER) I could write a whole separate blog post about the sex scene between Susan and Joe, and all the allegories that could be made to the idea of "the little death" as a euphemism for an orgasm, and the irony surrounding Death experiencing an act, at its basest function, being used to create life. While some may find the whole scene off-putting, for me it seemed to grow organically from the emotional intensity of the writing - and let's face it, Pitt is easy on the eyes!

 Hopkins and Forlani share a father/daughter dance
The film is marketed to be a romance, but it is actually a cleverly disguised serious commentary about the relationship between fathers and daughters, and coping with the hard truth we all must face - our parents will die someday. I am very close to my father and he is about the age of William Parrish in this film. I found a catch in my throat during the scenes with Susan and William, talking about living life to the fullest, and never settling for less. There's also a touching moment when William comes to terms with his overbearing eldest daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who knows on some level Susan has always been the apple of his eye. In a great piece of script, she says, "I've felt loved, and that's all that matters. So, never mind favorites. You're allowed to have one. The point is, you've been mine."

Not that Joe Black is without its flaws. There's a somewhat glossed over company scandal kerfuffle headed by Susan's boring ex that seems pasted in. A schlocky meet-cute scene in a coffee shop. Despite two hours of quotes about making the most of life, William Parrish spends a great deal of time in his office, Gatsby-esque, before joining the swinging birthday party thrown just for him. The film tries to end itself about five times, and eventually resolves in the best bittersweet conclusion that even allows Death to have one of the most human of experiences - coping with loss, and thus, coping with his very existence.

This is not a film for everyone. It takes a great deal of patience and a viewer as interested as Joe in its exquisite scrutiny of the human experience and all its ups and downs. But it does help us to pause and think about our finite existence and remind us that sometimes the meaningful moments in our lives don't always arrive in big bangs, but often in soft whispers and quiet embraces.

Jackaroo sez: More than a remake, it takes an idea and creates something wholly original. Despite its slow pacing and lengthy run time, it is a thoughtful, meditative scrutiny on what it means to be human. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Fantasy Audiobook Spotlight: Kings or Pawns expertly blends intrigue, humor, and heart

When it comes to high fantasy, author J.J. Sherwood wastes no time in bringing her audience right into the heart of the action in Kings or Pawns: Steps of Power:The Kings, Book 1, ushering in a new saga whose threads of intrigue would challenge even the elaborateness of Game of Thrones. 

The story takes place Elvorium, the capital of Sevrigel, which, as the name suggests, is inhabited by elves that has been corrupted by terrible leadership for decades. These elves are a far cry from the ethereal, felicitous creatures of Tolkien's world however; these are hard-fighting, hard-partying souls. Indeed, despite having a large cast of characters, Sherwood (who looks a bit elvish herself) takes the time to flesh them out fully and meticulously. Jikun Taemrin for example is one of my favorites with his frosty exterior, his long white hair and "azure eyes" marking him from the north, and yet inwardly he's a big softie. In one of the lighter moments towards the beginning of the novel his friend Navon finds Jikun's journal of terrible poetry which he begins to delightedly recite aloud, much to Jikun's dismay. Navon is a good foil for Jikun's stuffy nature, always encouraging his brother-in-arms to try to live a little...and maybe dabble in the occasional necromancy, which is illegal in Sevrigel.

Author J.J. Sherwood
The other major plotline running through the book is that of Hairem, the idealistic and naive elvish king of Sevrigel who finds turning the tide of deep-rooted corruption in his kingdom will not be so easy. Add in a fierce warlord hellbent on laying waste to their world and it becomes downright impossible. Of course, no great fantasy epic would be complete without some supernatural darker forces whispering their way towards wreaking havoc...

I found the audiobook much easier to dive into than the printed version mainly because of the good-humored way Matthew Lloyd Davies voices the characters in his polished British accent, fostering empathy and successfully interpreting the quick wit that Sherwood imbues within her solid writing. Some narrators have to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear as the old saying goes, but Sherwood is so confident in the tale she has to tell and her sentence structure so spot-on that reading this aloud must have been a true joy. Sherwood also credits her editor, the unsung heroes of the publishing world, on her website for making Kings or Pawns as polished as it is.

Davies also has great pacing, speeding up during moments of high tension but generally keeping a measured tone throughout. His crisp enunciation and consistency bouncing between so many different characters also helped me as a listener to keep track of who's who and what exactly is happening. I particularly enjoyed the self-depracating tone he gives Jikun (I had flashbacks to Stephen Fry's vocal interpretation of Marvin, the depressed robot, in his narration of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) , which is in direct contrast to Navon's more light-hearted inflections, further highlighting their "odd couple"friendship. Hairem's timbre is posh but uncertain, which is perfectly suited to his situation.

This is a mostly male-driven novel and I would've preferred a few more warrioresses sprinkled throughout, but Alvena, the mute handmaiden to Hairem that he has a particular affection for, proves to be an unlikely but essential plot device as the tale begins to weave its intricate tapestry.

Jackaroo sez: Audiobook was easier to delve into, but plot picked up quickly. Would've preferred more cats involved, but overall, a solid debut of a new series with excellent writing!

Like the sound of this? Enter to win your own signed  hardcover copy of the book and other fantasy swag here!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Audiobooks: My Accidental Life-Long Friend

Audiobooks have always been a cross between a happy accident and something that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. To close out this year's Audiobook Month, I decided to oblige the Audio Publishers Association by writing about what makes them so special - and have others weigh in.

My father, a semi-retired folklore professor, used to read to me as a little girl novels such as Tolkien's The Hobbit and Roald Dahl's The Witches with rising and falling inflections, inhabiting the characters and bringing the books to life for me. As a folklorist, much of what he teaches in his classes is histories of oral traditions in various cultures and the art of storytelling. I remember long car rides down to my grandmother's from Pennsylvania to Virginia, long before smartphones and IPads, armed with the latest collection of Calvin and Hobbes and trusty cassette player, headphones, and recorded stories told by such greats as Laura Simms. My mom is a brilliant writer and storyteller as well; we always say the three of us are a bunch of frustrated actors and our family holidays together are never boring.

Perhaps it is not so strange that in 2010 I literally stumbled into a job as an audiobook proofreader/editor. I hadn't thought about audiobooks very much up until that point - they had only recently recaptured my interest, listening to Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company in my car to and from work at my old position as a journalist for the prestigious nationwide publication, Soundings. To listen to audiobooks and fix them up for a living was a career I had never imagined for myself  - but one that has forever shaped me as a person and as a writer.

Around this time, I was struggling for a way to keep my fledgling blog sustainable and relevant. I'd review a few movies here and there, and friends and family would dutifully read it, but I needed a spark - a drive. Since I was listening to audiobooks all the time, it dawned on me I could review a few that were particularly interesting in addition to my movie reviews! I had plenty of material to choose from. Soon, I began to learn more about the people that belonged to the voices I kept hearing in my head all day long and some of the greats like Xe Sands and Tavia Gilbert, whom you'll hear from below, became dear friends. I quickly learned that sometimes the right narrator can elevate even the most mediocre material into something quite fun. When my manager at the time suggested I apply for a chance to be a reviewer for AudioFile Magazine - the premiere publication in the audiobook world - I jumped at it. Three years later and I am still writing away!

Though life has since moved me onto other professional opportunities, audiobooks remain a huge part of my life, love, and livelihood and I will always be grateful for the vibrant and incredible community of professionals they have drawn me into.

Why Audiobooks? Industry Professionals Weigh In 

 Although I absolutely love books, picture books through adult novels and non-fiction, I fell in love with listening to audiobooks while working in libraries. My very first listening experience was Jim Dale in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I was hooked. I can't go anywhere without listening to a book, because it ignites my wild imagination and paints word pictures across my brain and explodes. Now I work daily listening to audiobooks in quality control and proofreading. I love the stories listening invokes. - Deborah D Fleet MLIS, professional audiobook proofreader 

 Audiobooks have been a lifeline in times of loneliness and despair; partnership throughout hours while caring for my home and body; entertainment during healing from illness and injury; companionship during solitary commutes; a rich shared experience while traveling with loved ones. The best performances elevate and uplift my mind and spirit and connect me all of humanity via the most powerful tool a human has to make sense of the world around them — through story. A great audiobook is a magical and transcendent experience. - Tavia Gilbert, award-winning audiobook narrator, writer, and producer 

Audiobooks are...

That precious time and magical distraction with my daughter when she was young, speeding to places we didn't want to go.

That voice in my ear, telling me stories I might otherwise never have read, about Nabakov's house and finding Bernadette, about sentient zombie children and John (who Dies At the End), about female pilots and fierce wartime friendships, about how video games save the future and how a marriage might be saved by a ruse...and so very many other exceptional stories I might have passed right over in print.

The unbelievable combination of luck and audacity that allows me to do something I could only dream of back in that car, during that precious time with my daughter, wishing so hard I could be that voice in some other mother's car, distracting and inspiring and bringing bits of laughter and joy.
- Xe Sands, award-winning audiobook narrator and poetry aficionado 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

DVD/Streaming Spotlight: Zootopia is a Modern-Day Aesop Fable

Mom and Pops Hopps with Judy. Image courtesy of Disney
Every once in awhile I see a film that is so thoughtful and complex that gives me so much food for thought that my brain keeps turning it over and over until I am forced to write down my thoughts because it is just THAT GOOD. Zootopia is one such example. Its brilliance lies in that "It is an adult movie with a kid-friendly veneer," as my fiance put it. 

 The premise of Zootopia is that in an alternative universe not that different from our own, anthropomorphic animals have evolved to live in relative harmony with one another, predator and prey alike. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore commented that they live off of bugs, vegetables, and fish, which are deemed to be non-sentient beings. Of course, it doesn't mean that everything is zippity-do-dah all day every day. Judy Hopps is an enterprising rabbit from the country town of Bunnyburrow with big city dreams of becoming the first rabbit cop on the Zootopia. Mr. and Mrs. Hopps - who get the award for best parents of the year for being genuinely concerned about her future while concurrently caring for her other 275 siblings - are simultaneously wary and supportive of her life choices. When her dreams come true and is assigned to Zootopia, it is only the beginning of a series of sobering realizations - living in a crappy apartment with terrible neighbors, a boss that underestimates her capabilities, and a world that is much bigger and more complex than one could ever imagine.

This is not so different to what happened after I graduated from college, and I'm sure many can relate to having the real world fall very short of the great expectations often formed by higher education and our own delusions of self-grandeur. And this is only the start of the film. What follows is a film noir detective story tracking down missing residents of Zootopia, all of whom happen to be predators. Hopps is forced to align herself with a fox named Nick Wilde, a fast-talking hustler whose cynicism over life in the big city and initial disdain for Hopps' wide-eyed newcomer enthusiasm is embodied in the voice of Jason Bateman (whose praises I just recently sung in my review of The Family Fang).

"Do we HAVE to take a selfie?" Nick Wilde with Judy Hopps
What I find particularly intriguing is the intricate relationship between Hopps and Wilde. By the end of the movie, there is a suggestion that there is far more than just a friendship built on mutual respect for each other's capabilities. Evidence of this being in the creator's mindsets is shown in a deleted scene where Judy brings Nick home to meet her parents, and her father (for the purposes of the test scene voiced by director Rich Moore) exclaims "Sweet cheese and crackers he's your BOYFRIEND?!"

Much of the dynamic of the film focuses on predator and prey relationships, and of course, there is the undeniable reality that historically, foxes have eaten bunnies for breakfast. Her parents even give her what is akin to a can of pepper spray called "Fox Away" before she starts her new urban life. And all of this got me thinking that while there is the undeniable commentary on minority groups and tolerance, there is also very much a strong message being made to adults regarding predators of the sexual nature.

I don't want to get all Freudian on everyone here - but as I was walking home this evening with my take-out Chinese what has been intriguing me for days about Zootopia is that many of the main characters in the "prey" species are female, including the overworked and underappreciated Bellwether, a sheep an assistant to the Mayor of Zootopia who is - what else? - a lion magnificently voiced by J.K. Simmons.


There is a scene towards the end of the film where Nick reverts back to his predatory nature and turns on Judy. It is a tense, uncomfortable scene, and it dawned on me days later that from an adult audience viewpoint, there were undeniable notes of sexual aggression in that moment. In my days as a full-time audiobook proofreader, I read more romantic fiction than I'd care to admit. Terms like "predator" and "mating" were standard vernacular - I would venture to say that the filmmakers were pushing the envelope here to put in some thoughtful commentary on gender relationships and the importance of those relationships - particularly close, personal ones  - being built on mutual love, respect, and honesty.

There are pop culture references aplenty to lighten the mood and the animation is by nature stunning. It is incredible how far CGI animation has come in creating believable textures, and supporting character Clawhauser, an overstuffed, donut-loving cheetah, is so fluffy one could almost reach out and stroke his fat bespeckled head. And let's face it, going all the way back to Disney's reimagining of Robin Hood with woodland creatures (1973), they have always cornered the market on creating wonderful foxes.

It is in every way a fable addressing serious issues of our current world in an enjoyable and accessible way. With well-rounded starring and supporting characters, an ingenious plot and a solid screenplay to weld it together, Zootopia proves once again that animated movies can be adult-friendly, too. 

Jackaroo sez: Another modern classic to add to Disney's impressive collection, Zootopia is smart and funny in equal measures, purrfectly straddling the line between accessible joy for young ones and thoughtful, accessible commentary on modern society for older children and adults.