Monday, May 9, 2016

DOUBLE REVIEW! Zootopia and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

A look at the two highest-grossing films of 2016 (thus far) - one is really, really good, while the other is one of the biggest cinematic clusterfucks to come down the chutes in a long time. 

By: Jimbo X

If ever two films had more divergent anticipated outcomes, they are Zootopia and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

OK, it was likely that both movies were going to make a lot of money. That was virtually a given. Rather, the hype behind the two flicks couldn’t have been more different: one was the long, long-awaited clashing of comic book titans on the silver screen, while there other was some random, weirdbeard non-Pixar offering from the House of Mouse. In one corner, you had arguably the most anticipated superhero flick ever (no small superlative, considering the slate of mega-hyped genre films released over the last few years) and in the other? Well, you had what was effectively another iteration of Meet the Robinsons or Tangled – an original I.P. from the heaviest hitter in all of family-friendly entertainment, with, by Disney standards at least, relatively low-key marketing. Heading into the films’ respective releases, you couldn’t waltz down a grocery store aisle without being bombarded by Lex Luthor-branded Dr. Pepper cans or Batman cereal or Superman Pop-Tarts, while there were virtually no cross-promotional Zootopia products anywhere.

Well, here we are nearing the halfway point of the cinematic year, and what do you know, Zootopia has outgrossed BvS by a good $100 million. Furthermore, Disney’s furry-baiting feature stomped Bats and Supes in the critical arms race, garnering a solid 78 out of 100 Metacritic rating to Dawn of Justice’s very underwhelming score of 44.

Recently, I screened the two box office behemoths back-to-back, to see if the gulf in quality really was that sizable. And as it turns out? All things considered, the discrepancy is probably even larger than you’d think.

Indoctrination of cultural Marxism has never been this much fun!

Zootopia (2016)
Director(s): Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush 

By and large, Walt Disney is generally thought of as a conservative-leaning empire. Indeed, there is probably no greater cultural promoter of the heteronormative, cisgender ideal than Disney, whose expansive reach spans everything from Star Wars and about 90 percent of the Marvel Universe to The Bachelor and Scandal. Alas, with programs like How to Get Away with Murder and Modern Family among their top revenue generators, it’s clear that Disney is at least beginning to shift away from the Focus on the Family set, and Zootopia is easily the most counter-conservative animated flick the conglomeration has ever produced.

It doesn’t take a C. Wright Mills to pick up on the film’s obvious subtext. While the wee ones may think they’re getting a lecture about the coexistence of “predators” and “prey,” any functioning adult is aware the whole shebang is a metaphor for multiculturalism. For crying out loud (or aloud, if you’d prefer), there is even a lengthy subplot about the anthropomorphic animals adhering to a “mammal inclusivity” program – if the producers of the film were any blunter, they’d have to have hired people to waltz into the theater and literally bop you over the head with wooden instruments labeled “diversity is great.” 

Indeed, all of Zootopia comes off like Introduction to Critical Race Theory for the ankle-biter set. From the get-go, we’re informed that being a country bumpkin is a pointless waste of life and that anybody with a “good old boy” accent – even if he or she is a wolf – is a vicious, misogynistic psychopath. Before long, we’re jumping knee-deep into straight up contextual “urban supremacy” rhetoric when the film’s central character remarks about how great it is living in a densely-populated, concrete jungle with loud neighbors and overpriced housing. And just wait until you meet the gay cheetah – I mean, this shit is on the fucking nose.

Alas, Zootopia does throw viewers for a swerve. Rest assured, it’s not just liberal indoctrination for the sake of liberal indoctrination, it actually does have a solid, semi-adult-tailored storyline to complement, and sometimes counteract, all of the shameless progressive politicking. Believe it or not folks, Zootopia is actually a stealth, animated adaptation of the Academy-Award winning procedural drama Training Day. And no, I am not using creative license – it’s nearly a copy-and-paste job (albeit, with all of the references to smoking PCP and “getting your shit pushed in" excised.)

The central plot is simple enough: young Judy Hopps has long-dreamed of becoming the first rabbit cop on the city police force, and after some early trial and error, she eventually does manage to pass the final academy exam. However, the chief of police (I think he’s a buffalo or something) doesn’t think a rabbit, let alone a cisgender female one, has what it takes to bring down the city’s organized crime syndicates, so he instead puts her on parking meter duty. Well, one thing leads to another and she winds up partnering with a con-artist fox (his bread and butter, so to speak, is melting down giant popsicles to re-sell to “Lemming Brothers” investors at a profit) to figure out why so many otters and panthers are going plum loco and chewing up the SUVs of Russian polar bear gangsters. (Yes, despite the film’s “multiculturalism uber alles” mantra, the movie nonetheless engages in some less-than-subtle stereotyping – just wait until you see the Italian possums dressed up like characters from The Godfather or Goodfellas, or the Chinese pandas selling bootleg copies of Frozen 2 out of the back of vans.) From there, Zootopia actually turns into a fairly decent procedural drama (kiddos even get to learn how the po-po can exploit the “probable cause” loophole to violate the Fourth Amendment!), culminating with a political corruption subplot that just as easily could’ve been lifted out of something like Elite Squad 2.

The really incredible thing about the film, however, is that despite its obvious sociopolitical agenda – boy, I wonder why they picked white sheep as the embodiment for governmental venality? -  the film never gets too preachy to stop being entertaining. Indeed, this is probably the most enjoyable, big budget animated foray since The LEGO Movie – interestingly enough, yet another kid-targeted opus promoting the “righteousness” of the urban living. And thankfully, the film never lets the anti-Bell Curve proselytizing get in the way of some good old-fashioned, apolitical humor – the scene at the DMV with the painfully slow sloths might just be the most I’ve laughed at the cineplexes in quite some time. 

More than just being the most socially cognizant animated Disney flick ever, it’s also one of the least … well, Disney-ish, the studio has ever produced. Granted, it’s not quite as good as Wreck-It Ralph, but it certainly feels more anti-establishment than just about any other Disney cartoon I’ve ever seen.

And if a guy who publishes an anti-regressive-left diatribe called "This Week in Social Justice Warrior-dom” every fortnight still tells you it’s a good movie – buddy, I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s a good goddamn movie

My Score: 

Three and Half Tofu Dogs out of Four. 

Trust me: the cereal is WAY better.
 Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Director: Zack Snyder

One of these days, you’re going to be able to crack open a dictionary, flip to the entry for “overblown,” and read “see: Batman v. Superman.” Indeed, Zack Snyder’s overlong, wannabe-opus is arguably the biggest cinematic clusterfuck to come down the pipes since the heyday of mid-90s disasters like Waterworld and Cutthroat Island. The entire train wreck epitomizes everything wrong with the 21st century movie studio mentality: playing follow the leader, Warner Bros. decided they HAD to create a shared universe, too, and if that meant stuffing 10 hours of content into a two and a half hour feature and pushing the whole kit and caboodle out like CGI-laden canned ham, then who cares? It’s Batman vs. Superman, ya’ll, and you KNOW it was going to make beaucoup bucks no matter how little plot or effort went into it.

You could’ve seen the derailment coming from a mile away, as this eerily prescient “pre-review” from winter 2015 explains. It was just a perfect storm of bullshit, and disappointment was inevitable. An overrated director, really lame casting choices, wedging too much story into a single film, trying to create an Avengers-style event flick backwards (with the all-star film splitting off into character vehicles) and the overbearing (and oddly comical) “grimdark” atmosphere all insured this thing was going to tank, and tank something fierce. Granted, the movie has made upwards of $800 million at the international box office (plus at least a billion more in merchandise and licensing), but the tepid critical and audience response nonetheless demonstrates that D.C. hunched the proverbial pooch on this one.

In the pantheon of bad comic book movies, BvS isn’t the worst. Howard the Duck, the third Raimi Spider-Man, Superman IV and pretty much anything featuring the Fantastic Four are all lamer movies (in fact, I’d say Dawn of Justice is just slightly better than The Amazing Spider-Man, as well), but at the same time, none of those movies had the same inescapable hype behind them, either. People went into BvS expecting the superhero event film to eclipse all superhero event films, but what they wound up with was merely an excuse to make more explosion-laden movies. In the grander scheme of things, Warner Bros. pushed this movie out as hardly anything more than an action-figure selling afterthought, as the necessary on-ramp to begin spitting out formulaic “in-universe” movie after movie. In that, it’s not so much a fleshed-out, full-fledged feature as it is a $250 million doorstop.

The first half of BvS is certainly better than its second half. The focus is more on Batman than it is Superman – who, by and large, is used more as a messianic symbol than an actual character – and for the most part, Ben Affleck’s take on the Caped Crusader is fairly serviceable. From there, we splinter off into subset city, as Laurence Fishbourne do his best J. Jonah Jameson impersonation to a Clark Kent who don’t want to write about football, Amy Adams runs around trying to talk to sub-Saharan juntas for some reason and Mark Zuckerberg spends a good 30 minutes trying to get a Kryptonite embargo lifted by cajoling Kentucky Senator Holly Hunter with cryptic analogies about tea and pee-pee. In between, we get to watch Bats beat up human traffickers and brand them with soldering irons (that’s a new trick, isn’t it?) while news anchors talk about all the havoc Supes wrought battling General Zod at the end of Man of Steel (be forewarned, this does include some cheesy bloviating from real-life talking heads Nancy Grace and Neil deGrasse-Tyson.)

After Lex blows up Congress (as if that’s supposed to make us root against him, somehow) Batman stops having PTSD flashbacks about his mama getting blown away just long enough to start working out and make synthetic Kryptonite to power his huge Iron-Bat costume so he can beat up Superman – you know, just as soon as he’s done rescuing Day of the Dead revelers in Mexico who want to touch him in slow-motion, of course. So they have their big scuffle – it’s so poorly lit that you can barely make out what’s happening, though – and they wind up realizing they’ve both been played like a fiddle by Lex so they decide to team up to take him down but, whoops, he’s used some sort of alien blood magic to bring Doomsday (who, in the film, looks more like one of those orcs from The Lord of the Rings than the iconic comic book character) to life for a two-on-one CGI hootenanny finale. Oh, did I mention that Wonder Woman shows up, too, and there’s a part where Batman dreams he’s fighting Parademons on Apokolips and Lex heavily foreshadows the arrival of Darkseid by telling his handlers to turn a picture of the devil upside down? Well, all of that stuff happens, I feel like I should tell you.

Naturally, the film ends with a cliffhanger – and by cliffhanger, I mean Superman appears to have been killed. Seeing as how the film walloped us over the head with allusions to The Flash, Aquaman and Cybrog – not to mention Batman’s movie-closing remarks about finding “more people like him” – it’s a pretty safe bet that old Kal-El won’t stay deceased for too long., though, ‘cause they got to get the gang back together for yet another crossover clusterfuck of a movie next year – which, if the failings of BvS is any indication, is poised to be the next heavyweight champion of celluloid debacles. 

If movies were people, BvS would be a 600 pound man two cheeseburgers shy of a coronary lining up for a fresh plate at an all you can eat buffet. There is just way too much wedged into the picture, and there isn’t enough time to give anything the exposition or character development it needs. Really, there’s enough meat in the story to fill up three feature films, so condensing all of that into Dawn of Justice is the screenwriting equivalent of jamming 30 pounds of ground beef into a medium-sized Ziploc bag. Yeah, you can get some in there, but most of it is just going to fall to the wayside.

And in BvS, practically the entire story falls to the wayside. Everything feels accelerated, with huge chunks of what could’ve been exposition reduced to montages and lingering slow-motion sequences with secondary character voiceovers kinda-sorta-but-not-really filling in the contextual gaps. And the “action” sequences here are just overkill; at least 45 minutes of the movie is comprised of needless falling building scenes and utterly pointless car chase and beat-down sequences, cutting down the crucial screen time that could’ve furthered the story and established more nuanced characters.

All of the allusions to Greek mythology and Gustave Dore suggest Snyder and pals thought their handiwork was smarter than the finished product. Alas, taking in Dawn of Justice as a complete film, I am reminded only of a soliloquy from Macbeth - “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

My Score:

 One and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four.


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