See It Instead
This week, Disney tries to connect with audiences with Zootopia, using a familiar strategy: cute cartoon animals who act like people. This strategy has worked countless times for them in the past. From feature length films like The Aristocats and The Great Mouse Detective, to cartoons like Duck Tales and Rescue Rangers, Disney has consistently scored well by putting a shirt on a wild animal and giving it a day job. When I try that strategy, I get a court summons and people picketing on my lawn. There’s no justice in this world!
Zootopia hopes to be the latest success for the Mickey Mouse company, but there are plenty of engaging films about woodland creatures acting like folks, not all of which are by Disney! Let’s look at some of my favorites.
In a city run by animals, every job is filled by some sort of furry or feathered creature. While most of the time, genus has more to do with a person’s job than personal choice, but Officer Judy Hopper plans to change that. She is the city’s first rabbit police-woman, and she refuses to be stuck taking parking violations. When a string of missing persons (?) grip the city, she decides to disobey orders and nail the perp. Given only a short time window to succeed or be fired, she teams up with a cunning fox con artist in order to solve the case.
Early numbers are already point to a big hit for Disney with Zootopia. I even saw one reviewer call it “something new from Disney.” Is that person sniffing glue? Disney has been putting fluffy doe-eye critters into human roles for decades. Disney making a movie about a person acting like a wild creature would be more novel…oh wait…The Jungle Book…which is also coming out this year. Yeah, see my three picks below for something else that’s novel.
The Serious Pick: Robin Hood (1973)
The legend of Robin Hood, as acted out by animals in clothes. This film neglects any back story for the foxy Robin, assuming audiences are well aware of who the character is at this point. We catch him and his best bear amigo Little John (voiced by the wonderful Phil Harris, who likewise brought Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book to life) as they are about their business: constantly fleecing the Sheriff of Nottingham (a wolf) and Prince John (a juvenile lion) out of the taxes that they have imposed on the peasantry (mostly rabbits!) Eventually the villains figure out a scheme to draw Robin out of the forest with an archery competition, but Robin escapes after rekindling his romance with Maid Marian, a total fox.
This romp was one of my absolute favorite Disney films growing up. The voice acting really captures and enhances the defining characteristics of each animal (there’s a reason Harris played a bear so much!) and the musical numbers were pleasant and folksy. Before Disney had to pack each film full of celebrity voices and guaranteed-to-chart hit songs, they turned out films with less polish but more heart. Robin Hood was one of the best of those films.
The Lighthearted Pick: Animalympics (1980)
Framed as a broadcast from ZOO sports network, we are welcomed to the latest Animalympics, a multi-week event covering both summer and winter sports on an island which has been entirely developed to host the big games. Through the reportage of an eclectic cast of animal broadcasters, we are presented the adversities and triumphs of animals from each continent as they compete in events such as the high jump, gymnastics, boxing, slalom, and more. The two biggest events are the ski jump, in which the favorite has gone missing after a ski-trip accident transported him to the mythical land of Dogri-la, and the marathon, which lasts 14 days and is both the first event begun and the last event concluded of the program. Two superstars, Rene Fromage of Europe (a goat) and Kit Mambo of Africa (a Savannah cat) break away from the pack, and run shoulder to shoulder for nearly the entire length of the course. When they’re mutual admiration over the course of 14 days develops, they decide to cross the final line simultaneously, showing the competing countries that not all competition has to end in winner take all terms.
I absolutely love this film. Aired by NBC during the 1980’s Olympics, this film actually captivated me in ways the real games could never achieve. The animation is usually excellent; certain segments were less polished, but the major events were gorgeous. There is a musical element to the program, but the songs feel entirely organic and contemporary, and many of the vignettes have a striking visual style, more akin to animated music videos than a Disney sing along. The characters, despite often falling into stereotypes of nationality, are vivid and well crafted. You actually feel empathy for characters like Bolt Jenkins, a poor North American alligator living in the sewers who eventually goes on to win three gold medals. The voice acting is pretty great as well, as comedic greats Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, and Harry Shearer provide most of the sound work. The whole shebang is available on You Tube, and you really owe it to yourself to catch it.
The Unconventional Pick: Monkeybone (2001)
Brendan Frasier (remember when he was a thing?) is a cartoonist with a mildly popular character named Monkeybone, who has been haunted by vivid nightmares his whole life. Though drawing helps to quiet those dreams, they have never completely left him. A freak car accident leaves him in a coma, and inside his head he finds himself in a bizarre world where cartoons, anthropomorphic animals, and famously scary people all live. Stephen King reveals that nightmares fuel this place, and to make things worse, an embodiment of the character Monkeybone is set to steal a nightmare inducing serum and escape into the real world through Brendan’s now comatose body. Hilarity ensues.
The story of this film sounds interesting, but ends up a frenetic mess. The real (though limited) appeal of this flick is the deliciously insane visuals. Monkeybone is one part comic strip, one part Halloween party, and ten parts late-night MTV music video. You know, the good ones with skulls and demon bikers and nurses wearing devil wings. Ah, youth. There are several hidden gems here from all of the comedic fire-power on staff, though once again I wouldn’t fire this bad boy up hoping for a laugh riot. It feels like a slightly shabbier version of Beetlejuice, which even when bad, is still pretty good.