I’ll admit it: I didn’t get “Frozen”. Sure, the soundtrack was charming, but if you’d cornered me on the way out of the theater and challenged me to summarize the plot in a brief sentence, I couldn’t have done it. Try it yourself at home sometime. “Well, see, there’s this girl named Elsa, and due to a childhood accident she feels unable to control her ice powers, and so she self-isolates from her warmer sister Anna, who therefore grows up without a strong female role model and falls in love with the first prince she meets, while meanwhile there’s this in-denial talking snowman who helps usher her up a mountain to meet a reindeer herder who casts doubt on her engagement, and they have to find her sister who at this point has isolated herself in a hermitlike ice castle—and that’s just the first half!” You get the idea. I was sure it was going to flop.
Of course, it was a monster hit, and now every Halloween I see little Annas and Elsas everywhere. (Shows you how much I know.) And for a while, I griped about this—a lot. It bothered me that a movie with a plot no four-year-old could coherently relate was apparently every four-year-old’s new favorite movie. “What the hell happened to ‘Bambi’?” I griped to anyone who would listen. “Deer is born, makes friends, loses mother, grows up! That’s it! ‘Cinderella’! Girl wants to go to the ball, gets locked in a tower, her mice friends help her escape!” Even the Disney movies of my own childhood weren’t much more complicated: The Little Mermaid wants to live above the ocean surface and must bargain with a duplicitous witch. Aladdin wishes himself rich and successful. Belle enters into a hostage situation with a Beast. To be clear: all these movies (“Bambi” being the honorable exception) were sexist, misogynist nightmares (“Aladdin” managed to be racist as well as sexist) but the one criticism you could not level at them was a lack of tight storyboarding. When Disney released their trilogy of “new princess” movies—“Tangled”, “Brave”, and “Frozen”—I was equally surprised by the right-on feminist messaging and the comparatively extreme complexity of the plots. Instead of long, meditative washes of nature and color (remember the waterfall-and-fireflies scene from “Robin Hood”? Remember Snow White leisurely hanging out by a wishing well? Remember “Fantasia”, for God’s sake?), we now had secondary, tertiary, even quaternary plotlines. Every character had a backstory; the scripts were dense, quippy, mile-a-minute; the plots wouldn’t fit on a tablecloth, much less a cocktail napkin. I was glad to see girls finally getting the heroines they deserved, but I worried that they were losing something else important: the chance to marvel at simple entertainment, on an uncrowded screen, at a Mister-Rogers’s-Neighborhood pace that didn’t much care if the parents in the audience were bored. David Denby over at “The New Yorker” said it best in his review of “Shrek”: “children [are] being entertained by derision before they’ve been ravished by awe.”
Well, now I get what Disney was aiming at. “Zootopia” is a staggering achievement, a movie that manages to summon up all the old-Disney awe and wonder—the urge to stand still and gape—while serving up a new-Disney story as dense and multilayered as any ostensibly grownup movie playing alongside it in the theater. Oh, and it’s about a bunny who must team up with a fox to solve a mystery. There. Cocktail napkin.
Of course, “Zootopia” isn’t just about that: it’s also about racism, and stereotyping, and all the ways well-intentioned, frightened, ill-informed people can do incredible amounts of evil. It’s about the way the powerful benefit most from racial inequity; it’s about drugs being used to manipulate the powerless; it’s about the glass ceiling and intersectionality. And it is managing to be all of these things at the moment when a dumpy, goggle-wearing sheep, gusseted into a dingy yellow Hazmat suit, looks up from his meth-lab-like setup because someone has knocked on the door. “Oh, Walter and Jesse are here,” he says, and the theater explodes. Forget double- or triple-entendres: this is entendre baklava, a referential delight of such density that I was ready to turn around, march right back into the theater, and plop myself down again the moment the credits rolled. It’s not just the dialogue I want to experience again, either—it’s the environment, a kaleidoscopic natural world that feels as enchanted as any of the hand-painted forests that Snow White or Robin Hood wandered through. Surfaces—the raindrop-squiggled glass of a bullet train, the bubbling lacquer on an aging wooden door, the t-shirt stretched over a rhino’s belly—are palpably rendered, in such tactile detail that it no longer even registers as animation, but rather film that someone has managed to hook up directly to their imagination. The fact that this is not the work of a single-minded genius but of three directors, four producers and ten (ten!!!) writers, points to a near-fanatical devotion to an idea of storytelling, a school of storytelling. It’s the new Disney way. It’s not my parents’ Disney. It’s not even my Disney.
I can admit that now.