Grade: A

With the 88th Annual Academy Awards out of the way, we can now start talking about the 89th Academy Awards. It’s only March, and generally films released prior to October are outside the attention span of the Academy nominators but I’m willing to bet that they’ll nominate ‘Zootopia’ for Best Animated Feature.

Disney, as a singular entity, disassociated from its Pixar and Studio Ghibli subsidiaries, hasn’t released anything this great in decades. ‘Zootopia’ is an instant classic – a movie many families will have as part of their video library.

I didn’t expect an animated movie about anthropomorphic animals that dress and behave like humans to be anywhere near my list of the best films of 2016. But here we are. I greatly admire movies that create their own world and the world of ‘Zootopia’ is truly something to marvel at. It is an all-animal world in which the creatures are relatively scaled to their real-life counterparts. Its districts range from rural Bunnyborrow to the opulent Sahara Square to the gelid Tundratown to the titular city, a bustling metropolis where predators and prey live together more or less harmoniously. The very idea of this world is fascinating and I’d like to see other movies set in this world.

The predators account for a very small proportion of the population, but they appear to be highly ranked in their selected field. For example, the chief of the Zootopia Police Department’s 1st Precinct is a cape buffalo named Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), and the Mayor of Zooptopia, Lionheart, is a – you guessed it –noble lion (J.K. Simmons). Are you noticing parallels between this world and the one we occupy?

Judy Hopps (a country bunny wonderfully voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) has long wanted to be the first bunny cop in Zootopia. Though her parents don’t exactly support her in this avenue, she fulfills her dream and is ready to make the world a better place! But, none of the officers seem excited to see her there. Chief Bogo assigns her to parking-ticket duty, and the rest of the cops investigate cases involving missing mammals.

While frenetically writing tickets, Judy comes across Nick Wilde (literally a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman). She ends up needing his help when Chief Bogo gives her 48 hours (movie reference!) to find Mr. Otterton, the missing husband to Mrs. Otterton (a river otter voiced by Octavia Spencer) and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to resign. Nick and Judy bicker like crazy early on, but slowly develop a friendship as they delve further into the missing mammal epidemic.

If this sounds like a bunny, I mean buddy-cop movie, that’s because it is, and its one of the very best examples of this subgenre. It’s also sweet, it’s funny, it’s action-packed, it has mystery and intrigue, it’s got moxie, it’s filled with positive messages – you name it, this movie’s got it.

Watching this movie unfold, I couldn’t help but think that this was some sort of a sharp metaphor for racism. It could have been didactic, preachy, and heavy-handed, but it’s none of those things – it is honest, and it forces us to acknowledge that we can all be a little racist, whether we choose to accept it or not. About two-thirds through the picture, there is a section where the characters are dealing with the ramifications of other animals’ prejudices – the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned because it is so truthful. I don’t think many viewers will feel as if they are being preached to, and the movie will incite many interesting conversations when it’s over.

The screenplay by Phil Johnston and co-director Jared Bush is fantastic – it has its share of silly, slapstick moments to keep the kids entertained, but it sparkles with sharp, savvy humour for adult audience members to relish. It’s a fast-moving story that only slows down when Judy and Nick make a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, operated by an all-sloth staff. We’ve all had personal experience with regulative incompetence and incapacity, so it’s largely satisfying to see this story take a break from its rapid-fire delivery to roll this sequence out sloowwwwly.

The animation and the world created within this picture are amazingly detailed and visually spectacular. All of it – the city of Zootopia, the miniature city populated by tiny rodents, the trains, the doorways, Judy hopping around to write up 200 tickets in a matter of hours – it just pops right off the screen vibrantly.

The voice work here is brilliant. Bateman and Goodwin have such great chemistry together – all the more impressive considering their readings had been recorded separately.

‘Zootopia’ finds the perfect balance between enlightenment and entertainment. I am amazed that an animated film had the courage to have us accept our inherent shortcomings and have us admit that we could do better. This is one of the best films of 2016. QED.

Only Yesterday


Grade: A-

‘Only Yesterday’ will likely go in the books as one of the better films of 2016 as far as North American release dates go. It is actually a 1991 Japanese animated film that has sat on the shelf for the last 25 years. GKids has released both a new English dub (with Daisy Ridley from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, and Dev Patel), and the original subtitled version (which is the one I saw).

‘Only Yesterday’ is Isao Takahata’s follow-up to his World War II masterpiece ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ from 1988. It’s hard to believe he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination until just last year for ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (which ultimately lost to ‘Big Hero 6’).

Takahata’s story is as universal as life itself. A 27-year-old Tokyo woman, Taeko, vacations to the country to work on her cousins’ small farm. The trip brings back grade-school memories. An early 1990s Hollywood picture of this sort would be dripping with sentimentality. And yet, ‘Only Yesterday’ unfolds at its own deliberate pace, inviting the viewer into a contemplative world. Takahata finds the pathos in moments of self-discovery and ordinary moments.

The plot shifts between 1982, when Taeko stays at the farm with her host family, and 1966, when she’s a fifth grader. The 1980s scenes pop out of the screen with expressive detail. The 1960s scenes, by contrast, consist of unoccupied backgrounds and washed-out colors. It’s as if we are prying into someone else’s childhood memories, which explains the lack of detail – what we mentally catalogue isn’t entirely absolute.

Being unmarried, Taeko faces pressures to find someone (“27 is too old to be picky.”) but Takahata keeps the film locked in her self-examination, as she can’t escape the feeling that her fifth-grade self has joined her on the trip. Her childhood memories, which we see in flashbacks, aren’t that different from our own memories of childhood: the impressionable school play that she starred in, the awkwardness of her first crush, her first taste of pineapple, her relationship with her demanding father, the intense student council debates over lunchroom rules, the time she failed her fractions test (dammit, Takeo, when you divide A by B, you take A and multiply it by the reciprocal of B!).

‘Only Yesterday’ reminded me of my favorite movie of all-time, ‘Tokyo Story’. Even the opening credits are similar – with Japanese characters set against the simple background of a tatami mat. In ‘Tokyo Story’, an elderly couple takes a long train ride from their village in southwestern Japan to post-war Tokyo to visit their grownup children. In ‘Only Yesterday’, an unmarried woman takes a long train ride from Tokyo to the countryside in northern Japan. There is a simplicity to the surface qualities of both pictures but underneath it all lies an economic, ecological, psychological, and socio-political commentary that transcends its time and place and approaches something universal.

Though Walt Disney has released a number of Studio Ghibli features over the last twenty-plus years, it isn’t hard to understand why they didn’t release this one. This meandering story about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants out of life and how she wants to live will leave many children feeling restless. There is also a long segment in ‘Only Yesterday’ where fifth-grade girls learn about menstruation – not the sort of stuff a studio like Disney wants in their family-friendly movies.

Takahata’s breathtakingly beautiful and keenly observant film, which was based on an autobiographical manga series by Hotaru Okamoto with art by Yuuko Tone, sneaks up on the viewer and leaves a major imprint. Taeko hits a point of realization about her childhood behavior and where it has brought her and every moment leading up to this registers as a real lived-in experience – so much so that you may forget that you’re watching an animated feature. ‘Only Yesterday’ is no longer “the best Studio Ghibli film you haven’t seen”. You owe it to yourself to see this one. Currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. QED.