That’s OK though. I was honest and up front about the fact that I had only seen a handful of the films (something I’m working to rectify right now as many of them are being released on DVD and Blu Ray) and was thus basing many of my predictions on trailers and word of mouth from people who HAVE seen the films.
This Isn’t About the Oscars
It’s not about my failure at predicting the Oscars either. This post is an analysis of some of the animated films that were nominated in the Animated Feature Film category this year, and why I should have trusted my gut when selecting that category.
To review, I picked Moana as the Best Animated Feature Film this year while the award went to Zootopia.
In the end, I think that the Academy made the right choice, again with the caveat that I haven’t seen the other three nominees. But given the choice between these two films, I would now pick Zootopia in a heartbeat.
I wrote last month that I felt Moana would win on the stunning visuals alone, and stunning they are. Thanks to my kids, I’ve seen the film at least a half dozen times in the two weeks since it was released, and every time I pick out a new amazing image and I continue to be amazed by the visual accuracy they can portray with things like water, lava, smoke, and even hair, all of which are extremely difficult to mimic using a computer.
Speaking of my kids, they may have swayed my vote a bit. Obviously, Moana is the more recent of these two films and the one they talk about more. My daughter got a Moana doll for Christmas and they have been listening to the music non-stop since they first saw the film three months ago. So, Moana was in my consciousness more than Zootopia.
And the music…oh that music. I am a huge fan of the Moana soundtrack and tip my hat to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i for putting together an amazing set of musical accompaniment. It gets in your head and stays there for days, leaving those three to simply say “You’re Welcome.”
Even with the stunning visual appeal of the film, there is a bit of a disconnect in some aspects. One of the catchiest songs, “Shiny”, is also the one that feels the most out of place in the film. This scene, along with one where Moana and Maui are attacked by vicious coconut pirates called Kakamora (yes, I said coconut pirates) take me out of the film too much. We get similar montage song moments in Frozen (“In Summer” and “Love Is an Open Door”), Tangled (“When Will My Life Begin?” and “Mother Knows Best”), and even back to Aladdin (“Friend Like Me”) and Beauty and the Beast (“Be Our Guest”). The songs I’ve called out here are all examples of Disney creators flashing their animation skills in wild fantasies that don’t have a real place in the world of the story. Yes, maybe the Genie can conjure up all the things he talks about in “Friend Like Me”, but the dishes probably can’t spontaneously put on the production they do in “Be Our Guest” and Olaf certainly doesn’t actually GO to summer when he sings “In Summer.”
But for some reason, I can ignore these breaks in continuity in all those other films, but not as much in Moana. In fact, there are two songs in Moana that I do let slide in this same way, “Where You Are” which shows the inner workings of the village, and the ever popular “You’re Welcome”. While Maui’s pop/rap riff is his only singing highlight of the film, it does resurface throughout the remainder of the story in key spots. It also departs visually from the rest of the film, but in a way that is very reminiscent of “Friend Like Me”. Interestingly, the directors of Moana also did Aladdin 25 years ago.
So why does “Shiny” rub the wrong way so much? I honestly don’t know. The style of the music feels much different than anything else on the soundtrack, almost more like a country rock song than something that fits in the island culture of the film. Add to this that the last phrase of the song is accompanied by the singing crab character getting a sudden psychedelic glowing paint job, it just takes things too far off the rails for my liking.
There is also little to connect “Shiny” and the Kakamora scene to the rest of the story. It is explained at the very beginning of the film that all these creatures want to Heart of Ta Fiti for themselves, but doesn’t everyone want the power to create life? When the Kakamora attack, they don’t speak, only making faces with paint on their shells. We are left to pick up the pieces of the story from Maui as he tells us what they’re after.
In the end, I feel like Moana relies too heavily on the music (which is fantastic) and the visuals, but went soft on the actual story that lies beneath those beautiful surface elements. The story itself is OK, but thinking back, it falls in line with many of the other Disney princess stories where they go on some sort of discovery journey and come out changed at the end, either proving things to themselves or to others. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Yes, Moana learns to sail from Maui. Yes, she restores the Heart of Te Fiti and brings abundance back to her people. Yes, she becomes chief and leads her people out to the ocean in a return to their earlier traditions. But it all feels wrapped up I such a nice neat little bow.
Zootopia, on the other hand, tackles some much bigger world issues than one girl finding her purpose. First, some similarities (AND SPOILERS). We again have a young female character (Judy Hopps, albeit a rabbit this time), who is determined to achieve more than people expect of her. She goes on a journey, is told “no” by her main authority figure (Police Chief Bogo), meets an unlikely friend (Nick Wilde) who leaves before she can complete her journey, only to return at the very end when she truly needs him, and finally she does succeed in the end, redeeming Nick and setting things right with the world.
So, where are the differences? Those come in the issues.
The world of Zootopia is one where predator and prey live side by side in harmony. Yet, even with this idealistic society in place, there is an undercurrent of mistrust and even racism between the two types of mammals. The film even uses the word “savage” to explain what happens when a predator reverts to basic animal instincts that we all learned in high school biology.
Beyond these obvious elements, there is an undercurrent of political corruption at the highest levels of the city government, not just the mayor who is covering up the animals that have “gone savage” in his own interests (he’s a lion after all) but the assistant mayor (a sheep) who’s behind the entire plot to drive a wedge between predator and prey and take over the mayor’s office for herself. There are layers in this story that go well beyond anything you can find in Moana.
And I haven’t even gotten to the deep characters that exist. The one that jumps out the most is Nick Wilde. We first meet him as a down on his luck dad, trying to get a jumbo pop from an elephant ice cream parlor for his son. Of course, his character soon changes tone as we see him and his “son” melting the jumbo pop down to form smaller popsicles that he can then sell to lemmings leaving work, collect the popsicle sticks which he also then delivers to a rodent construction site. When Hopps confronts him about his “illegal activities,” he presents all the appropriate documentation and plasters a smug grin on his face as he tells Hopps, “It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.”
We can see that Nick is incredibly smart, resourceful and has a sarcastic streak. What we don’t get until later in the film is that he has never been trusted simply because he’s a fox. We get a flashback to when he was a boy and wanted to be in the Zootopia equivalent of boy scout. His pride at being a part of the Junior Rangers is quickly dashed when the other Rangers try to muzzle him as part of his “initiation”. Seeing this troubled past, along with the ultimate turn back to trustworthiness as a police officer in the closing scene, gives Nick’s character a well-defined arc throughout the film.
The other key takeaway from Zootopia is that at the core, it is a very well designed crime drama. As noted above, there is corruption in the government, a police chief who only wants to do things the way he’s always done them (without rabbits in his force) and of course there is the adorably cute shrew crime boss, Mr. Big. When you see Zootopia for the first time, it unfolds in such a way that you might not know the identity of the true nemesis until the characters on screen do. I admit that I only figured it out a minute or two before the reveal during my first viewing.
In my final analysis, I think that the Academy got it right. As an overall film, an piece of art that tells a story, Zootopia is the better piece. If you’re looking for amazing visuals, I could still lean toward Moana, however there are plenty of stunning visuals in Zootopia too. But looking at it through that lens would be like comparing Castaway to Lethal Weapon. (I only pick those for loose comparisons, island movie and buddy cop movie, so don’t over analyze that)
I look at it like this, if you recreated the two films side by side as live action, keeping all other elements the same, I could definitely see Zootopia getting a Best Picture nomination before Moana. In fact, when I first saw it, I told my wife not to be surprised if Zootopia was nominated for Best Picture this year.
Let me know your thoughts. If you think I’m wrong, tell me why in the comments below. I’m open to other interpretations and I may have missed something in Moana that could vault it back ahead of Zootopia.