Zootopia: A return to greatness for Disney

zootopia-movie-posterI’ll be the first to admit that I had little to no interest in seeing Zootopia after the first and even the second trailer came debuted (a DMV run by sloths is a funny gag, but not enough to sustain a two-and-a-half minute trailer). Quite simply, it looked like a concept that had been done a million times before: anthropomorphic characters living in a human-less society. However, to my genuine delight and surprise, the trailers simply didn’t do the film justice. There’s a lot to love about Zootopia.

Zootopia is one of those rare films that equally enjoyable for kids and adults. It was clever enough to keep me laughing throughout (no gross-out humor or mean-spirited snark to be found), and had enough pathos to bring a tear to your eye. The world (particularly the sub-biomes within the city itself) is lush and vibrant. Basically, Zootopia knocks visual and emotional appeal straight out of the park.

The basic plot is thus: two main characters, Judy Hopps, a rookie bunny cop, and Nick Wilde, a con-artist fox, find themselves embroiled in a Chandlerian mystery involving missing mammals. They must delve into the seedier sides of the supposedly idyllic Zootopia and confront not only nefarious critters, but also the prejudices that come along with living in such a diverse society. Surprise, surprise: in a world where wolves and sheep live side-by-side, there’s some friction.

What impressed me most was how deftly the film uses its subject matter to drive discussions about race, prejudice, and stereotyping. Judy has to overcome the hurdle of being the first bunny cop, and all the roadblocks that come along with it: being underestimated, being talked down to, and dealing with those who see her as a “token bunny” hire.

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Judy isn’t the only character facing negative stereotypes. As a predator, Nick has had to deal with comments like, “He’s just naturally aggressive. It’s in his DNA,” his whole life. After a traumatizing childhood incident, Nick becomes cynical about the idea of peaceful co-existence, deciding that if the world will only ever see him as predatory and untrustworthy, then there’s no point in trying to change anybody’s mind.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is that the writers didn’t make Judy a perfect beacon of tolerance and acceptance just because she’s fighting against prejudice herself. Despite how open-minded she tries to be, she still carries negative stereotypes about foxes (note: much of her prejudice is passed down to her by her parents) and, when she first sees Nick, she automatically assumes he’s up to no good (which he is, but that’s not the point). And, after her first interaction with Nick, she even slips into a bit of condescension herself, complimenting him on how “well-spoken” he is. The film drives home the point that racism and prejudice is something we all learn, and all have to work to unlearn.

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Zootopia deserves praise for refusing to slap an easy ending onto a complex story question. The film could have ended as so many other Disney films have, with a nice but simplistic message such as, “Follow your dreams and everything will work out.” In fact, the film cheekily derides that easy sentiment by having characters spout off lines like, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true.” The movie drives home the point that yes, you can step out of traditional roles and break down stereotypes, but it is a process, both difficult and extremely worthwhile.

On top of being a funny, gorgeous, highly entertaining movie, Zootopia has a great message and a lot of heart. I’m gonna close with the film’s concluding monologue and let you decide if this movie is worth your time. It was absolutely worth mine.

I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.

 

-Alyssa

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LOVE STINKS: An Anti-Valentine’s Day Playlist

Single peeps, lemme rap with ya for a minute. We all know that, for the most part, being on your own is pretty great. But there are some days where you feel like the only person in the world who isn’t in a deep, committed, Westley-and-Buttercup-style relationship. And that can feel pretty un-righteous, ya dig?

Earlier this week, I found myself in the throes of this particular brand of malaise, so naturally I looked up a classic bit from Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer to cheer myself up a little. It did the trick. After all, sometimes the best cure for an unpleasant mood is to wallow in it.

Watching that video got me thinking about other songs in the same vein as “Love Stinks.” I scribbled them down, and before long, I’d devoted a solid afternoon to crafting a playlist dedicated to the many stages of single-ness, from bitterness and melancholy to revelry and hope for new love.

Whether you’re a lone wolf or have been struck by Cupid’s arrow, please enjoy this weird little playlist, mostly cobbled out of songs I found on my iPod. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify or check out the individual songs below.


Stage 1: BITTERNESS/ANGER/RESENTMENT

For when you’ve been hurt and you’re fed up with it all 

“Love Stinks” The J. Geils Band

You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win
And so it goes
Till the day you die
This thing they call love
It’s gonna make you cry

 

“One More Minute” “Weird Al” Yankovic

That’s right, you ain’t gonna see me cryin’
I’m glad that you found somebody new
‘Cause I’d rather spend eternity eating shards of broken glass
Than spend one more minute with you

 

“The Chain” Fleetwood Mac

And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain

 

“No Children” The Mountain Goats

And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You’d stay the hell out of my way

 

“White Blank Page”/“I Gave You All” Mumford & Sons

Tell me now, where was my fault
In loving you with my whole heart


And you rip it from my hands
And you swear it’s all gone

And you rip out all I had
Just to say that you

 

Stage 2: MELANCHOLY/REGRET/LOSS

Because you’re not really alone when you’ve got all those memories to keep you company

“Mess” Ben Folds Five

But I don’t believe in love
And I can’t be changed
All alone as I’ve learned to be
In this mess I have made

 

“April Come She Will” Simon & Garfunkel

August, die she must
The autumn winds blow
Chilly and cold
September, I remember
A love once new
Has now grown old

 

“Goodbye” Elton John

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away

 

“I’m Not The Only One” Sam Smith

You and me, we made a vow
For better or for worse
I can’t believe you let me down
But the proof’s in the way it hurts

 

Stage 3: FREEDOM/REVELRY/RELIEF

Good riddance to the past, time to live for the now

“Tainted Love” Soft Cell

Don’t touch me, please
I cannot stand the way you tease
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I’m gonna pack my things and go

 

“Rumour Has It” Adele

But rumor has it he’s the one I’m leaving you for

 

“Ex’s & Oh’s” Elle King

One, two, three, they gonna run back to me
‘Cause I’m the best baby that they never got to keep
One, two, three, they gonna run back to me
They always wanna come, but they never wanna leave

 

“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) Beyoncé

I need no permission, did I mention
Don’t pay him any attention
‘Cause you had your turn
And now you gonna learn
What it really feels like to miss me

 

Stage 4: WISTFULNESS/LONGING/HOPE

For rebuilding, and for when you’re ready to dream of love again

“I Want to Break Free” Queen

But life still goes on
I can’t get used to livin’ without, livin’ without
Livin’ without you by my side
I don’t want to live alone, hey
God knows, got to make it on my own

 

“All These Things That I’ve Done” The Killers

Another head aches, another heart breaks
I’m so much older than I can take
And my affection, well it comes and goes
I need direction to perfection, no no no no

 

“This Too Shall Pass” OK Go

You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down
And you can’t keep draggin’ that dead weight around
If there ain’t all that much to lug around,
Better run like hell when you hit the ground
When the morning comes

 

“Everything Will Be Alright” The Killers

I believe in you and me
I’m coming to find you

If it takes me all night
Wrong until you make it right

 Everything will be alright

 

Happy V-Day, everybody!
-Alyssa

 

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Let Us Give Star-Spangled Thanks

Between Donald Trump and Burger King’s black-bunned Whopper, it can be kind of hard to find things to be thankful for on this most American of holidays.

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Seriously, what did we do to deserve this? Actually, don’t answer that.

Thankfully, when I find myself in times of trouble, Captain Rogers calls to me, speaking words of wisdom: “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.”

The trailer for Captain America: Civil War just dropped, and it’s heavy on the gut-punches, both literal and figurative. I knew this movie was going to leave me a blubbering mess from the first scene in the trailer, when Steve finally finds his best friend Bucky—and Bucky remembers him.

Then we see Tony Stark and Steve falling on very different sides of a government mandate to comply with the Superhero Registration Act. We also get a pretty powerful exchange between Cap and Stark/Iron Man:

Steve:
Sorry, Tony. You know I wouldn’t do this if I had any another choice. But he’s my friend.

Tony:
So was I.

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[Sidebar: This scene would have a lot more umph if Joss Whedon had, y’know, actually built up a friendship between these two instead of just having them exchange barbs and posture at each other over the course of two movies, but I digress]

Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero (and perhaps my favorite superhero, period) because he represents the best of America. He’s selfless, compassionate, and does the right thing not because it’s easy or politically advantageous, but because it’s the right thing. He stands by the defenseless and stands against purveyors of hate, fear, and greed. I actually think we’d be in less of a mess as a country if more people and politicians asked themselves What would Steve Rogers do? before they made a decision.

So, while Civil War won’t be out until May of next year, we can take heart knowing that, in the Marvel cinematic and comic universe at least, there exists an America where a good-hearted kid from Brooklyn defends the values we should all strive to uphold.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. And God bless (Captain) America.

-Alyssa

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Lemme gush for a minute about the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack

I have inordinately strong feelings about The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. It’s the first movie soundtrack I was ever exposed to (the movie came out when I was only a few years old, so I heard the score before I ever saw the movie). It’s also the soundtrack that began my love of and appreciation for movie scores.

It began in late October of 1993, when my dad saw the movie with his sister and brother-in-law when it first hit theaters. He was immediately taken with the film, not only for its arresting visuals and charming story, but also for its dynamic, vibrant score. He sat through the end credits, listening to the reprises of the highly memorable motifs sprinkled throughout the film. He went hunting for a copy of the soundtrack as soon as he left the theater, but found out that it wouldn’t be released for a couple more months. So he asked for it for Christmas, and thus, the beloved cassette tape entered into our lives.

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My dad was a stay-at-home dad, and neither of my parents were overly enamored with the idea of daycares. As a result, my brother and I spent a good amount of time in the car, accompanying my dad on whatever errands needed to be done. The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack was on a near-constant loop during our drives, and it wasn’t long before we knew every word of every song. More impressively, I eventually learned every note of every song. Even now, I can anticipate the entrance of every instrument, every key change, every crescendo.

In sixth grade, I joined my middle school’s band (I picked the sax, cool kid that I was). Being in band throughout middle school (and high school as well) helped me appreciate the nuances of my favorite soundtrack even more. I now could proudly confirm that that was an oboe leading that melody, or pick out the bassoon lurking in the background.

And the more I learned about music, the more astounded I became by Elfman’s score. Most other soundtracks I knew and loved were characterized by a single instrument or instrument group (horns, strings, percussion, etc.). This was not the case with TNBC. Listen to this soundtrack, and you’ll hear damn near every instrument shine.


Check out Jack’s Lament. Sweeping strings lead the melody at 1:13. There’s a lovely flute entrance at 1:22, and a jaunty sax solo at 1:41.


Or Dr. Finklestein/In the Forest. I love the fat, plodding bassoon and tuba at 0:28 and the mournful-sounding oboe at 0:48.


And finally, Christmas Eve Montage, my favorite orchestral track. Right out of the gate, it begins with explosive strings. Then it turns to trumpets and French horns at 0:06 and then a harp and an xylophone at 0:39.

It’s a rich, enduring soundtrack that I’ve grown to love more and more as the years go by. It sparked a lifelong love of film scores, and I’m so grateful that it exists. It has and always will hold a special place in my heart.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

-Alyssa

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My Spy Kids Marathon, Continued

Spy Kids 3(D): What If Willy Wonka Designed Video Games?
Okay, this is where things start to get a little… well… silly, let’s say. I’m… I’m just going to list some things that happen.

  • Carmen’s trapped in a video game so Juni has to team up with the nerdiest nerds ever to nerd in order to save her
Seriously, lookit these nerds.

Seriously, lookit these nerds.

  • Sly Stallone designed the video game and is trying to trap kids in it but is also trapped in the video game but is also schizophrenic and somehow not evil in the end
  • President George Clooney does his best Sly Stallone impression (it’s not bad at all)
  • Elijah Wood appears, only to die instantly
  • Ricardo Montalbán (henceforth “Grandpa Khan”) gets a virtual robot suit and chases butterflies on the Moon

This flick mostly exists to showcase a parade of obnoxious “3D” effects (Max and I tried to make a drinking game out of every in-your-face moment, but we quickly recognized this to be a poor life choice). However, all the weird, inexplicable plot points and random virtual obstacles are ultimately worth it for the inordinately satisfying showdown at the end of the movie.

Here’s the setup: Some robots start attacking the city and the Spy Kids™ decide they need some extra firepower to take ’em down. Enter… Mr. and Mrs. Antonio Banderas! Alan Cumming and his sidekick, Tony Shaloub! Steve Buscemi riding a flying pig! Cheech Marin! The Giggle siblings! Uncle Machete! Bill Paxton! Literally everybody shows up to kick some ass. And it may have been the delirium of sitting through approximately four-and-a-half hours of technicolor madness, but Max and I cheered aloud when these familiar faces showed up again. It felt like Rodriguez rewarding us for sticking with the franchise as long as we did (though that may have been a desperate leap of logic on our part).

If the last few minutes of #3 is Robert Rodriguez graciously shaking our hands for joining him for a fun evening, #4 is Rodriguez bludgeoning us with a tire iron for overstaying our welcome at his dinner party.

Spy Kids 4: What If We Made A Huge Mistake In Watching These?
spy kids 4
Coming off the hype of the showdown at the end of 3, Max and I braced ourselves for some disappointment. And man, this last film sure did not disappoint in the disappointment department.

There were virtually none of the characters we’d grown to (kind of) care about- just a couple of bratty kids and their talking robot dog (voiced by an astonishingly unfunny Ricky Gervais). Joel McHale plays the kids’ dad and, to his credit, he acts his heart out for this role. But his dad-ly earnestness cannot save this collection of poop and fart jokes Rodriguez tries to pass off as a movie.

Oh yeah- and it turns out the bad guy (surprise, surprise) ISN’T a bad guy at all and is just trying to manipulate time to see his dad again (I think). And we get another weirdly deep moment with our villain, Jeremy Piven (a la Steve Buscemi in Spy Kids 2):”Time is the enemy of youth,” he intones. “I’m getting mine back.” Okay, dude.

Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World ultimately lives up to its name, in that it seems to last for the duration of eternity.

 

Takeaways from this crazy-ass franchise:

  • Robert Rodriguez is actually really creative. Barring the outright badness of #4, I think most of my exhaustion after finishing the series could be likened to listening to a hyperactive 10-year-old tell a story for about 5 hours. After that much wild, zany inventiveness, I need a reality break.
  • Since Max and I both hail from Texas, we got a kick out of spying (haha) familiar filming locations throughout the series (Austin, Arlington, San Antonio). It’s always fun to say you’ve been to a place that’s shown up on a multiplex screen.
  • Maybe this is me reading too much into the series, but I spied (okay, I’ll stop) a couple of significant instances where Rodriguez works characters with disabilities into his plots. And the cool thing is that these moments are actually executed pretty skillfully. Grandpa Khan is reluctant to leave the virtual world where he can run and jump because he doesn’t want his grandson to think him any less a hero when he’s wheelchair-bound. The little brother in the last film is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids, but he’s no less capable than his older sister, who has no such disability herself. Good for you, Rodriguez.

And there you have it. I’m glad to have been your cinematic sherpa on a journey you had no intention of embarking upon yourself. I’ll keep you posted on any other ridiculous ventures I decide to tackle.

 

-Alyssa

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I Watched All Four Spy Kids Movies in a Single Sitting So You Don’t Have To

Spy_kidsYou, gentle reader, may be asking yourself “Why?” And rightly so. The short answer is “Because.” The long answer goes something like this:

The idea to embark on this madcap venture was not mine, but my friend Max’s. One night at 4 a.m., he asked himself, “Just how good is the Spy Kids franchise?” He seemed to recall it being Very Good, but wanted to confirm this. That’s were I came in. With very little preamble from Herr Maxwell, I received the following gif via text:

Obviously, I couldn’t say no to that. A few days later, we convened at his place, armed ourselves with cold bottles of Shiner, and set out to conquer this franchise in a single go  while trying not to dwell on the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes scores for these films steadily decline with each installment.

 

Spy Kids: What If Pee-Wee Herman Was Evil?
Right out of the gate, we could see that this movie actually has a lot going for it. Antonio Banderas is in most of it and exudes illegal levels of charm. Alan Cumming plays the villain Floop with foppish glee and hosts an evil version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with his sidekick, Tony Shalhoub. Danny Trejo makes his first appearance as Machete, a role that would come to define his career.

Antonio, rockin’ the ugly sweater and specs.

[Sidebar/confession time. This first film is the only one I’d seen before this marathon, and, when I saw it in theaters at the tender age of ten, it scared the bejesus out of me. I remember being horrified to discover that the strange creatures that populate Floop’s TV show were actually captured spies, twisted into gibbering monstrosities and forced to perform for the entertainment of the kids watching the show at home. While this concept is no less disturbing to me now, I was able to get through it all just fine upon realizing that Alan Cumming is about as threatening as a bowl of low-fat yogurt.]

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Alright, Mirror Universe Pee-Wee, we get it. You’re bad. You can stop posing.

The Cortez family (consisting of kids Carmen and Juni and Mr. and Mrs. Antonio Banderas) ultimately save the mutated spies and face down an army of robot kids with the help of Uncle Machete. And Floop turns out to be a good guy because his heart wasn’t really in the whole forceful mutation thing. Who knew.

Spy Kids 2: What If Steve Buscemi Was God?
So this movie opens with Bill Paxton dressed as a cowboy hanging out at Six Flags. If there is a reason for this, I don’t remember it. Max and I were too busy shouting “IS THAT BILL PAXTON? WHY IS HE A COWBOY? WHY IS HE AT SIX FLAGS?”

He looks just as confused as I feel.

He looks just as confused as I feel.

This movie isn’t as good as the first one because it has less Antonio, but we do get Ricardo Montalbán as the wheelchair-bound father-in-law, so there’s that. The kids go to an island for some secret mission or something and run into reclusive scientist Steve Buscemi. Science Steve invented a bunch of tiny animals to put in a tiny zoo (okay) but then decided he wanted them bigger so he made a growth potion that got a little crazy and now his island is overrun with giant beasties. Honestly, this entire movie is worth watching for this scene alone, when Steve pontificates about religion as Carmen and Juni look on in uncomfortable silence.

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Seriously, nothing can top that weirdly existential moment. There’s also a Jason and the Argonauts-style skeleton fight and a couple of rival spy kids notable for their bratty behavior and their incredible names (Gertie and Gary Giggles).

Paucity of Antonio aside, this movie is okay. So far, Max and I are doing alright.

 

To be continued in my next post… (Spoilers: the movies get much, much worse.)

 

-Alyssa

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So I got to see Neil Gaiman.

Late Sunday afternoon, fellow writer and excellent good friend Steven Thorn called me up and asked me one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked:

“Hey, do you wanna go see Neil Gaiman tomorrow? I’ve got an extra ticket.”

Because Steven is the type of person who inspires the best in people, I fought to keep expletives out of my affirmative reply (and miraculously succeeded).

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The ticket to the night’s event.

Monday arrived with its usual haste and brought a steady, day-long drizzle. A gray afternoon shifted to a gray evening and soon, we found ourselves scarfing down McDonald’s burgers and barreling down a rainy highway to a university I didn’t know existed before this day (University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, bless you for making admission to this event free of charge). The venue was small (intimate was the adjective I offered), but we didn’t mind, as every seat would give us a good view of The Author.

When @neilhimself took the stage, we applauded (part of my applause was for myself, as I correctly guessed that he’d be wearing all black). He kicked off the evening with a few thoughts on writing, with the aim of de-mythologizing the writing process. Writer’s block, he asserted, is a convenient thing writers use to shift their ability to solve their own problems elsewhere. “Gardeners don’t get gardener’s block,” he pointed out.

He then read a few of his short stories—wonderful tales of frustrated genies and igloos made of books. This night helped me remember that there’s something special about hearing an author read his or her own work aloud (the accent was certainly a plus as well).

Then, he graciously turned to the stack of questions that had been collected from the audience before he’d begun his talk. The one that elicited the best advice of the night was something along the lines of “What pitfalls/missteps have you experienced in your career that aspiring writers ought to avoid?” He responded with a story about a book he wrote on commission at the age of 23. The book wasn’t about anything he was particularly interested in, but the pay was good, so he wrote it anyway. When it got published, it was a success, and a good amount of royalties was coming his way. But then, the publishing abruptly company folded, leaving him with nothing at all.

His advice (paraphrased): “Don’t write for the money, because the money isn’t always guaranteed. Write something interesting and important to you. Then, even if you don’t get the money, you still have the interesting thing.”

Well said, sir. And thanks for a wonderful Monday evening.

-Alyssa

Tidbits:

  • Someone asked Neil what his favorite color is, and he responded with “probably green.”
  • Mr. Gaiman does delightful impersonations of Steven Moffat and Terry Pratchett.
  • “Writing is a craft that consists of sitting down, staring at a typewriter, a blank screen, a piece of paper, and looking grumpy.”
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