Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).

Zootopia film posterCREDITS
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016.

Second Coming (2014)

There’s no doubting this is a slow film. It uses the silences and the awkward pauses in conversation as much as the dialogue in order to build a picture of a family, and how they relate to each other and to their friends and co-workers. The plot that gives the film its title and loosely threads through these interactions — that the mother Jax (Nadine Marshall) is pregnant to an unknown father — is never really at the forefront, but lurking somewhere behind it, at times threateningly (most forcefully when Idris Elba’s husband Mark realises he’s not the father), but at other times offering hope. This latter feeling is, after a fashion, what the film ends with, as it’s Jax’s history of miscarriage which is obliquely alluded to throughout as a sort of emotional trauma she’s been dealing with during her marriage, though she has one son, JJ (Kai Francis Lewis). It’s perhaps this background that informs Marshall’s quietly excellent central performance — though both her and Elba are acting fully within a naturalistic mode, mostly sharing time together in silence and without the grandstanding melodrama that the premise could easily lead to. In the slow pace and quiet naturalism of the dialogue, it can sometimes seem like a difficult film to love, but there’s plenty to admire in debbie tucker green’s film debut after many years as a playwright. Despite her background, there’s nothing stagy about the resulting film, except for the best qualities of that medium: a focus on well-drawn characters and subtle acting, both of which are on display here for audiences willing to invest the time and patience.

Second Coming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer debbie tucker green; Cinematographer Urszula Pontikos; Starring Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 9 June 2015.

Pacific Rim (2013)

There’s not really been any shortage of films featuring robots pounding one another or the wholesale mechanised destruction of cities recently. It could almost be a genre; it certainly sells in the global marketplace. In fact, I’ve read persuasive essays online arguing that this need by Hollywood to make money from the worldwide market is precisely the reason for such a template being used, requiring the minimisation of any kind of dialogue or human interaction. Pacific Rim follows this trend, very much emphasising the metallic technology over the human element, and within the context it sets up for itself (and certainly compared to these other recent films), it’s rather entertaining — though every bit as punishingly loud and thudding as you’d expect.

I don’t really feel there’s much I can add to the discourse surrounding these films: the high concept ensures that the viewer cannot possibly be in any confusion as to what will happen. In case you’ve missed the hype, the story is that huge slimy aliens (called “gaiju”) are being sent to Earth via a wormhole under the Pacific in order to crush humanity and take over the planet for some shadowy reason. As a result, the world’s governments have co-operated to create a programme of vast mechanised robots (called “jaegers”) to battle the aliens before they destroy too many of the large seafront cities of the Pacific rim. Now, on the brink of being overwhelmed, their final desperate gambit is to close up the wormhole. So, rephrasing that high concept in the words that must have hooked in the Hollywood executives: it’s robots vs monsters.

The sea- and city-bound battles between the two antagonising forces are at the heart of the film, and the special effects are indeed very good. There’s a great sense of the vast size and clunking solidity of the jaeger robots, along with plenty of biological gloop and miasma on the part of the gaiju. In amongst this, though, we have the humans. And sure, there’s a range of cultures and languages on display, but the key roles go to gravelly-voiced half-shaven white guys and a pair of hyperactive boffinish science geeks none of whose names I can in any honesty recall (though the lead character was called Raleigh), but more than one of the actors is definitely named Charlie.

Just about the only human who makes any impression whatsoever is Idris Elba as the commanding officer Stacker Pentecost, who guides the jaeger programme to its final showdown with the gaiju. His soft-spoken British accent and intense gaze, burdened with all the responsibility of the world, is used to good effect. Meanwhile, Rinku Kikuchi plays a young woman, Mako Mori, who has been raised by Stacker and proves her skills to become a jaeger co-pilot. Mercifully, there’s no teasing sexiness or short skirts for her: all the pilots, Mako included, are no-nonsense and dedicated. However, once the suits are on and the robots are fighting, the dialogue just sputters out. They shout things, but over the din of such massive forces colliding, it’s really difficult to pick out what’s being said.

For all that, it’s not a bad experience by any means. Director Guillermo del Toro keeps things interesting with some engaging sub-plots, primarily that involving Ron Perlman as a shady underworld character who has been given semi-official clearance to trade in recovered gaiju body parts. Del Toro is also interested in exploring, through the way that jaeger pilots must meld their brains during combat, the way that the experiences of childhood shape adult identity. Other plot strands are rather more clichéd, such as the emerging romance between Raleigh and Mako (there’s no chemistry and it just feels rote) or those hyperactive scientists working to try to understand the gaiju, who provide a bit of levity as comedy sidekicks but become very wearing very quickly. However, it’s these hints at a world subsisting around the edges of the epic battles that give the film its heart.

Alongside that humanity struggling to assert itself within the film’s narrative, I cannot pretend I didn’t find the hulking yet strangely glamorous robots (they each have their own specific identity) appealing in the battles; they certainly look good on the posters. If I had to commend to your attention one recent overpowering world-imperilling tentpole blockbuster franchise, then I suppose it would have to be Pacific Rim, for what that’s worth.

Pacific Rim film posterCREDITS
Director Guillermo del Toro; Writers Travis Beacham and del Toro; Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; Starring Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi 菊地凛子, Charlie Hunnam; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green [2D], London, Sunday 21 July 2013.