The fiasco following Warren Beatty’s absurd proclamation of La La Land as this year’s Oscar winner instead of Moonlight (despite realizing that he had the wrong envelope in his hands) has already been commented on to exhaustion. I’m really sorry for the public humiliation that the producers of La La Land endured; yet, at the same time, I’m happy that the error was corrected, as this a film I profoundly dislike. I share 100% the reasons for my aversion with David Cox, and, so, I’ll recommend his insightful review (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/23/la-la-lands-inevitable-oscars-win-is-a-disaster-for-hollywood-and-for-us).
I’d rather use my time and energy here to praise the winner for Best Animated Feature Film, the delicious Zootopia (a.k.a Zootropolis in Europe). Also, another charming animated film, Trolls, though this was only nominated for its wonderfully catchy song: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”(he voices Branch, the male protagonist, in the film). I want to applaud in particular the leading female roles, Judy and Poppy, respectively, for being a breath of fresh air in the stale world offered to little girls.
I love animated films for children and I’m sorry to see that adults with and without children in their families look down on them as inferior products. I have been reading these days Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and enjoying very much his defence of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks as producers of valuable work, worth analyzing from an academic point of view and actually quite subversive. Even so, he calls the films “silly” quite often, as if apologizing for dealing with them before those who despise movies for the little ones as sub-par cinema. This is the wrong attitude. So, please, here is my first plea today: do see films for children, and of all nations, not just American ones. I need not say that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is producing wonderful animation, and so are others around the world.
I am well aware that animation need not be limited to children. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (Oscar nominee last year) or Persepolis (nominated in 2007) are, obviously, not for children. Adults who make the mistake of believing that cartoon movies are for kids may find themselves very much chagrined, as did the many embarrassed parents who rushed their children our of the screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) which I attended. I was myself quite shocked to see what could be done with a few pieces of cut paper… At any rate, take a look at any list of Oscar winners and nominees for Best Animated Films, a category activated in 2000, (like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Animated_Feature) and marvel at the many excellent films it contains. Indeed, Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), also appeared in the list of Best Picture nominees, apart from winning in their own category.
This year, Zootopia’s rivals were two other US films–Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana–the Swiss/French My Life as a Zucchini and the French/Belgian/Japanese co-production The Red Turtle. I have not see Moana yet (known as Vaiana in Spain because Moana is the trademark… of a bathing soap!) and it might well be, this goes in the same positive direction I want to praise here. Leaving aside The Red Turtle for the purpose of my argumentation, I need to say that I was horrified by Kubo and the Two Strings (despite loving Laika Studios’ Coraline and Paranorman) and will almost certainly not see My Life as a Zucchini.
Why not? Well, Kubo might be as beautiful and innovative as you may wish regarding its animation technique, but it begins with a mother running away with her baby after her own father gouges out the little boy’s eye. Not that you see the actual scene but I could never get over this bit of patriarchal cruelty, so nonchalantly narrated. My Life as a Zucchini begins with the protagonist, um… Courgette, accidentally killing his mother and being sent to an orphans’ home. Similarly, Pete’s Dragon, which I saw recently, begins with little Peter’s parents being killed in a horrifying car crash, which leaves him stranded in the forest for years. I usually go to the cinema with my little niece and after having put her through the terrifying experience of seeing The Good Dinosaur I have been avoiding like the plague this kind of traumatic children’s animation–hence my pleasure in Zootopia and Trolls. And her pleasure.
You’ll have noticed that in all the horrifying films for children I have mentioned, the protagonist is a boy (or a male creature). Odd. Call me naïve, but I’d rather push that ugly view of life as confrontation aside and focus on what cinema offers little girls, which seems far more upbeat. The trend, possibly started with Brave (2012), extends now to other products, like the TV series Gumball (2011-, with the amazingly well-balanced Anaïs) or Miraculous (2015-) with the girl superhero Ladybug. Even Spielberg’s failed film The B.F.G. is part of a growing trend: an increase in the number of appealing female characters for little girls. It’s not just a matter of up-dating the fairy-tale princess, though this is also happening, but of going a little bit farther. As my niece patiently explained to me, what is cool about Elsa in Frozen is that she is a queen, hence in no need to marry… and with power to do interesting things.
Zootopia and Trolls are, in this sense very different, for Judy Hopps is a rabbit very much focused on becoming a police officer, whereas Poppy is a troll queen, focused on saving her people from the ogres that want to eat them. At first sight, they seem to have little in common but they do share a main feature: the determination not so much to fulfil a dream as to do their job well, and for the sake of their community. They also have a magnificent self-possession, totally extreme in Poppy’s case, as she does not know the meaning of the word ‘defeat’ (Judy does, indeed). Jack Halberstam praises a series of animated films, from Finding Nemo to Chicken Run, precisely because they focus on characters that look beyond themselves to help others, something which he finds missing in our selfish society. In this sense, though I loved the French/Canadian film Ballerina (with its subversive Marxist conquest of 19th century bourgeois ballet by low-class Félicie), I realize that the plot repeats the selfish model of personal success. In contrast, Judy and Poppy are motivated, rather, by securing the best for their community: hence their being praiseworthy heroes.
Again, though the two films are very different, the central problem both in Zootopia and in Trolls is posed by predators. Judy’s utopian world is based on the idea that carnivores and herbivores can live happily together–a dream spoiled by shady manipulators who attempt to present meat-eaters as pure beasts. In Trolls, things are even more straightforward: the big ogres see the tiny trolls as a delicacy and (as we do with animals) they even have an annual festival devoted to gorging on them. Judy and Poppy’s mission, then, entails keeping a delicate balance that deters the potential predators from eating their prey, a category to which they themselves belong as a herbivore (Judy) and a troll, no matter how queenly (Poppy). In their efforts to redress the balance and avoid danger, Judy and Poppy are accompanied by a very reluctant male mate: respectively, the con artist Nick Wilde (a fox) and Branch, a severely depressed troll who lost all his colour because of a deeply traumatic event. Nick mocks in his stylish way Judy’s earnest fight against crime; grumpy Branch dampens (or tries to) the spirit of the always cheerful Poppy. That is, until both gentlemen are won over by the girls, in friendly, rather than romantic ways.
Girls, the message is, can change men, hence patriarchy, with their optimism. This has been well received by Zootopia’s audiences (the movie keeps a very high 8.1 score at IMDB) but not so much by the public for Trolls (only 6.5 at IMDB). I’m not sure whether this is important but Trolls is a DreamWorks, not a Disney, film. I loved every minute of Trolls, but others found it both too dark (in the sense I have been complaining here) or, confusingly, too mawkish. I enjoyed very much Zootopia’s clever plot and the many playful references to adult films. Yet, I appreciated Trolls for being an in-your-face defence of cheesy good feeling.
Beyond the actual events in the plot, I very much believe that Trolls has pulled the amazing trick of turning the disgusting, creepy Troll dolls designed by Dane Thomas Mann in 1959, into something, well, energizing. Please, take a look at Judy here (http://zootopia.wikia.com/wiki/Judy_Hopps) and see how optimistic and forthright she looks–encouraging, right? Now, take a look at pink-skinned, pink-haired Poppy here: http://dreamworks.wikia.com/wiki/Poppy. She is irresistible… an image of complete and utter self-sufficiency. Both my home and my university office are now decorated with her image, completed by the motto ‘I’m confident’–for so she is. And you know what? I feel confident when I look at her comical, slightly squint-eyed, glittery face… or when I see her sing her way into almost complete disaster and still be positive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0. Who, I wonder, can connect with angry, one-eyed Kubo instead?
Is Judy and Poppy’s optimism misplaced in our increasingly ugly world? Should we give little girls heroes like them at all? I’m not talking here about silly, pretty girls who only think of romance and fashion. These are, let me stress, females doing a good job (I puzzle, however, about why they are not human–perhaps I need to see Moana/Vaiana). Judy and Poppy are intelligent, resourceful, competent and, above all, positive. Not just happy in a bubbly, inconsequential way, but constructive, affirmative and encouraging of others. My heroes…
Now, thank you Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for writing Trolls, thank you Erica Rivinoja for Poppy’s story. Thank you Jared Bush and Phil Johnston for writing Zootopia, thank you Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee for Judy’s story. And the marvellous production designers for the way Judy and Poppy embody girl power.
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