Saturday, October 29, 2016

New(ish) Releases: Zootopia (2016); In the Heart of the Sea (2016)

Zootopia (2016)

Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush

I wouldn't call it a hands-down classic, but Zootopia is a highly respectable entry into the canon of modern animated family films that don't condescend to younger viewers.

The movie mostly follows the story of Judy Hopps, an upbeat rabbit with dreams of being a police officer in the cosmopolitan super-city Zootopia, where all species of animals live in ostensible harmony. The world Hopps lives in is populated by all manner of animals who have long since evolved beyond their basic predator/prey hardwiring. Instead, they live in civilized manners, with jobs, homes, and families. This does not mean, however, that certain problems and prejudices don't exist. Some animals types are presumed to have or lack certain skills for certain tasks. In the case of Judy Hopps, as a rabbit, she is assumed not to have the strength, tenacity, or instincts to be a police officer. She has her chance to prove everyone wrong when she finds herself in the middle of a case of several missing animals in Zootopia.

The very clear theme running throughout the movie is that individuals shouldn't be stereotyped or generalized. While this may seem trite to mature adults, the movie sends the message in rather savvy ways. There is also the added depth of the larger notion that certain types of individuals are more prone to bestial, primitive behavior than others. This clearly touches on racism and other dangerous ideas which are still relevant topics, even early in the 21st century. As someone who didn't watch this movie with any children - just his fellow Generation X wife - we both felt that the movie was rather clever in how it got its points across.

But is the movie funny? It is, after all, and animated family film. The answer is yes - it is funny. I wouldn't put it on the same plane as the very best Pixar movies or other animated films of that caliber, but there are plenty of funny lines and visual gags. There are more than a few jokes and references that are clearly designed with older viewers in mind, but children should never feel lost or bored. The voice-actors all do great work, and the visuals are eye-popping in their vibrancy. There are also plenty of clever visual gags, often relating to how the various animals of different sizes and physcial needs all co-exist within the city of Zootopia.

This was a really enjoyable animated movie. I imagine that kids would love it, and adults are likely to enjoy it plenty, as well.

Movie posters like this one promised a sense of awe at the
incredible profession of classic whale hunting. Some of this
came through, but not nearly as much as I had hoped.
In the Heart of the Sea (2016)

Director: Ron Howard

With so many excellent ingredients there for a great movie, it was surprising to see that this one didn't totally manage to live up to its potential.

The movie is a dramatization of many true events which befell the Nantucket whaling ship the Essex, whose sinking inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. We start with Herman Melville in the late 1840s, convincing an aging man to tell of his time as a cabin boy on the Essex, a whaling ship surrounded by strange rumours. Melville's interviewee eventually tells the author the tale of how the Essex, thanks to the desperation and frustration of its at-odds captain and first mate, went dangerously far out into the Pacific Ocean and were attacked by a massive, frighteningly aggressive white whale. The Essex was sunk, and the crew had to endure the harrowing ordeal of finding some means of rescue while drifting along in tiny boats, well over a thousand miles from any inhabited shore.

The movie doesn't do anything poorly, but I didn't find that it did anything exceptionally well, either. The cast is strong, including the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, Cilian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, and several other less-know but equally capable actors. All of them do just fine with what they were given, though the script seemed to be lacking the snap that would elevate it above adequate. The tale itself also contains the compelling power struggle between the captain and first mate, which provides some amount of drama, but it feels as if it falls just a bit short of reaching truly gripping heights.

First mate Owen Chase (right) and his friend, Matthew Joy.
The bond between Chase and Joy is more hinted at than ever
fully explored, diluting some of the film's impact.
The pacing seemed to feel a little bit off in certain places, as well. Once the Essex sets out on its journey, we get the excitement of seeing just how complicated the task of operating a whaling vessel is. Anyone with the slightest curiosity for seafaring is likely to be engaged in the ship's departure from port and how it heads into its first major squall. After this, though, it seems as if the story was a bit rushed. The friction between the captain and first mate didn't have enough time to fully simmer before it came to a real head. And when crewmen eventually start dying for various reasons, it felt as if it lacked as much emotional punch as it could have had. Perhaps this could have been improved with a few more scenes of the crewmen relaxing or working on the ship, where we could have seen their personalities a bit more. Whatever the case, the reasonable 122-minute running time could have used a good ten to fifteen more creative minutes to add some emotional heft.

The visuals are probably the strongest aspect of the  movie, but like the other aspects, they weren't as captivating as possible. The majesty of seafaring and, at times, the whales which the Essex hunts are sometimes captured well, and you get a sense of the enormity and grandeur of the oceans and traversing them. And there are a few clever shots here and there. However, I found some of the sequences during the actual hunting to be less exciting than I had hoped. Having read Moby Dick not long ago, I can easily recall how exciting a really well-done film adaptation could be of a whale hunt. In the Heart of the Sea conveys some of this adventure, but here also I couldn't help but be a tad underwhelmed by something which should truly inspire awe. I suppose seeing the movie in a theater may have helped this, but I feel that my television screen should still have been conveying more awe from certain scenes.

This movie was just on the right side of the question "Is it worth your time?" My wife and I certainly didn't feel that we wasted our time watching it, but neither of us will ever return to it. I would recommend it with the slight caveat not to expect greatness. Truthfully, the only lasting effect the movie had on me was making me want to re-watch the underrated Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World from 2003.