Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Animation review: Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis

In the last few days I've seen Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis. Both were pretty solid animated films with some surprisingly mature themes. This post includes minor spoilers.

Don't upset the Dragon Warrior

Kung Fu Panda 3 pretty much continues where the second one left off, with Po meeting his real panda father who was a post-credits reveal at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2. The plot is split between Po discovering his panda heritage while also having to fight a new baddy – General Kai, who has returned from the Spirit Realm to steal the chi life force of the living.

For fans of the first film, Ugwe, the turtle who chose Po as the Dragon Warrior is back. I always liked Ugwe. The animation is top drawer, especially a sequence with an elemental dragon towards the end. There are also lots of very cute baby pandas.

If I was a bit critical I’d say the members of the panda tribe were a bit overdone in being goofily clumsy and fat. It was funny at first, but there is only so many time you can see someone bouncing off a massive panda tummy in slow motion and still laugh at it.

The more mature storyline is the conflict between Po’s panda dad and his adoptive goose dad, who has raised Po ever since he discovered him in a box of radishes. I think it covered the difficulty faced by foster fathers and birth fathers quite sympathetically, even if it resolves it more neatly and quickly than things like this get resolved outside animated films. What is telling is that both panda and goose want to see Po happy, and that enables them to get over their differences. Po ends up with two dads, instead of replacing one. That’s a very positive message.

Zootropolis (called Zootopia everywhere else besides the UK) is the latest Disney film. I really enjoyed it. The plot is a nod to police movies and unlikely buddy movies – a rabbit, Judy Hopps, becomes the first bunny to become a police officer in the city of Zootropolis but struggles to be accepted because of her status as a prey species. She teams up with a streetwise fox, Nick Wilde, in an ‘unnatural’ partnership between a predator and prey species to solve a missing persons case that turns out to be much bigger than she first realised.

Wait, this isn't the Number 8 bus...

There were some good jokes along the way. The scene in the DMV run by sloths was no less funnier for being one of the extended trailers for the film, and Flash the sloth pops up again later in the movie in a moment that really made me laugh out loud. There is also an very nice homage to the Godfather as well. The animation is really outstanding, particularly when Judy sits in the observation car of the train taking her to Zootropolis and we see the city, with its different climate zones revealed one after the other. That whole sequence knocks most science fiction movies out of the park for the level of detail and wonder.

The big plot theme here is the relationship between predator and prey species in a clever parallel to racial tensions in the human world. With predators seemingly falling victim to their ‘biology’ and going savage, the prey species are being urged to take action. It’s no accident that one of the more prominent prey politicians has a hairpiece reminiscent of Donald Trump. The assertion that ‘we outnumber them ten to one’ and therefore need to crush them to protect ourselves from them is a bit like the anti-Muslim rhetoric you sometimes hear. Removing a predator cheetah (who is only really a danger to doughnuts) from the front desk of the police station because the powers that be feel as a predator he doesn’t project the right image, really rams the point home about stereotyping.  (Even if the love of doughnuts is in its own way also a stereotype.)

So, Zootropolis has a very deep theme and an important message. It also boasts a fine meta joke - Alan Tudyk voices the thief Duke Weaselton, who is a weasel. In Frozen he voices the Duke of Weaselton. When he is welcomed at Arendel castle as the Duke of Weaselton, he issues a correction and says it's Wesselton. In Zootropolis his name is mispronounced and he corrects it to Weaselton. I doubt any kids will even get the link, but that’s the sort of thing I quite enjoy.

Kung Fu Panda: 7.5/10

Zootropolis: 9/10

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