Bewitching Funny Animals

Over this Easter Long Weekend, I have seen two movies on drastically different poles. The first being a funny animal message movie from the House of Mouse, the second being The Witch.

I have also been listening to The Idle Weekend, a podcast I would recommend if you have any interest in Video Games, and this has got me thinking about “rating systems” and their utility. I feel like it would be an exercise in helping me derive my thesis and have it show in the text of my articles if I adopt a simple Yes/No system. Why is it that I say Yes, this is worth watching, or No it isn’t? Numbers have always seem rather arbitrary to me, unless you’re someone like Tim Brayton, in which case more power to you.

With that in mind, I shall debut this system here for these two movies.

1) Zootopia.

YES

First thing’s first. Zootopia is super duper ultra adorable, and that instantly won it a lot of points with me (Full disclosure: I adore cute/adorable things). It also has beautiful production design and strong vocal performances.

Zootopia is a funny and witty funny animal take on the Buddy Cop genre, pairing the city’s first Rabbit Police Officer on an impossible mission with a Fox con-artist. Needless to say, the two of them learn there’s more to each other than surface level characteristics, and one of the film’s great strengths is its setting up and subsequent subversion of these stereotypes to fulfill the dual purpose of getting laughs and digging at character truth. The mystery they set out to solve is ultimately rather predictable, but their character interactions and various approaches to solving it serves as the main driving force of the narrative and provides Zootopia with its heart.

As mentioned before, it is a message movie, and it strives hard to talk about prejudice and its damage, particularly racial prejudice. The world of Zootopia consists of a society run and governed by Predators, with a majority population of unequally disenfranchised Prey animals.

It does have some mature things to say about the nature of prejudice, and how even well meaning people can bring great harm to particular groups of people through ignorance and spreading misinformation.

Zootopia is not without its flaws, though. A particularly big one being the way the world has been conceptualised. It sets up Predators as the animals in all positions of power, yet ultimately positions them as victims of prejudice. The film makes specific mention of the fact that the City’s population is 10% or less predators, and its use of this specific language shows a lack of awareness as to the signifiers being used, and the power/class differentials in real world prejudice. Zootopia comes dangerously close to fighting in the corner of privileged groups and suggesting that they have it as hard, if not worse off than genuinely alienated groups in our societies. This is a dangerous message for the film to send to its child audience, or even its adult audience for that matter.

Lesser grievances I had with Zootopia revolve around how it feels more like a movie produced by Dreamworks Animation than Disney. It relies quite a bit on pop culture references for its humour, rather than sticking to its much stronger character motivated gags. You are sure to find references to The Godfather, Speed, and Breaking Bad among others, and it feels like a crutch to make the film seem relevant to this time, rather than acting as a timeless piece, confident in its central thesis and characters to carry it. It even ends on a dance party.

Interestingly, a secondary thematic arc flows through the movie; that of women struggling to be taken seriously in typically male dominated fields, with both the main Bunny character, and a prominent secondary character struggling to make it in their chosen vocations. The film, however, foregrounds its faulty race metaphor and this secondary theme feels more like incidental flavour than a genuine attempt to explore another dimension of prejudice and privilege.

But when Zootopia explores its central characters and their relationships. and the struggles of its female characters, it shines. It is not a great film, but saying its botching of privilege and power relationships renders it incapable of having any intelligent insight into the workings of discrimination would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It also happens that Zootopia is an adorable and often funny family adventure film, and I would take an ambitious animated film over one that tries to coast along any day.

2) The Witch

YES

The Witch is a difficult movie. It is a slow burner that gradually builds tension while the world unravels for its characters, and it is simultaneously deeply invested in being authentic in its construction of time, place, and character. It runs the risk of being alienating to horror fans and people interested in costume dramas. But by god does it do these two things well. So well, in fact that the one could not exist without the other. So entwined is the horror in its world building, and its world building in its horror that to favour the one over the other would be to rob The Witch of its potency.

I have listed this film as YES, so if any of that sounds appealing, please go track it down. The less you know about the particulars of the movie, the better. 

It is clear a lot of research has been conducted for this film, with dialogue even being lifted from source texts. The details from dialect to set dressing and costuming to the presentation of Puritan customs and lifestyle, lends the film a verisimilitude that informs the way the viewer reacts. This verisimilitude is aided by a stretch at the beginning of the film dedicated to setting up the world, the key players, their situation and beliefs, before spending the rest of the runtime challenging those beliefs. 

The basic premise is such; a family has been exiled from their community due to their patriarch’s prideful insistence that he and his are the most Puritan of all. First time director Robert Eggers shows his handle on formal elements by never allowing the viewer a clear look at the community. You see the family and the judges, and the most you see of the settlement is from the midst of the family, showing a narrow and mostly eclipsed view of the main path receding away until the gates are shut on them. 

With this the audience shares in the alienation from the one potentially comforting and safe location in the film’s world. Another thing to note, the first image of the film serves to establish a point of view character while also sowing seeds of doubt in the viewer. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory. 

The Witch is a film about the horrors faced by people in a certain time and place, be they natural or supernatural. It is a testament to the strength of the film’s construction that it can immerse the viewer in a potentially alien belief system, and mine its horrors from it. In that way it is similar to The Exorcist, though not as profane or overt. I understand it is heretical in some circles to say this, but I found The Witch to be all together more affecting and disturbing than The Exorcist, as a person outside of the Faiths presented in both movies. 

Watch it if you want to be transported to a time and place unlike ours to be unsettled by what you find there. 

Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark is a French anthology of black and white animated horror short films.

Each of the shorts uses a different art animation style, and if you have seen anything like Halo Legends in the past, you will know what you are in for. Much like other film anthologies, the shorts vary in quality.

The film begins with a traditionally animated short that was reminiscent of the animation style of Fantastic Planet – a fantastic, surreal French Science Fiction animated feature.

After this short (which turns out to be interspersed between the other shorts) is a bizarre sequence akin to watching a Saul Bass styled credits sequence while a neurotic French woman recites all she is, was, and ever will be afraid of in your right ear. I do not know if there was an issue with my audio setup, or if it was intentionally balanced to the right channel, as the other shorts seemed to have no such issue. This short, too, was interspersed and served to act more as an intermission than anything.

A third short was a manga styled ghost story, that had the quality of a campfire story. Not particularly scary, but interesting in its imagery. Of all the animations, it was this one that stuck out, as it was the most washed out looking of the shorts. There were no deep blacks to be found. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it feels like you’re watching the faded panels of an old manga come to life, but it did feel a little odd compared to the others.

Fourth came a short that had a similar look and style of animation to the first short. It concerned a man recounting a series of events during an early period of his life when an unknown creature was terrorising his town. It was quite well animated and was drenched in melancholy.

The shorts evoked different moods, ranging from melancholy to oppressive to sensual. Disappointingly, for a series of horror shorts, they weren’t particularly scary. The sole exception to this was the fifth and final short (my favourite) that follows an unfortunate man as he stumbles around an unfamiliar home in the dark. It is the closest to being chilling and makes perfect use of a deep inky blackness. In fact, for a majority of its run time, most of the screen is black, and the short uses outlines and quick flashes to suggest the sinister goings on in the house.

As can be expected in a series of shorts by different animators, the quality of sound design also varied. I’d say, once again, the Fifth short comes out on top with an amazingly dynamic soundscape and wonderfully ominous music. At one point the protagonist loses his shoe, and the difference in the sounds of his footsteps is amazingly realised. This level of attention to detail added immensely to the creepiness of the short. Sound is an incredibly important aspect of film, especially of horror films, and this short nailed it.

I’d say Fear(s) is worth watching if you are a fan of animation and would love to see some, at times gorgeous and mesmerising black and white animation. It works as a moody piece of experimental animation, but do not go in expecting any genuine scares. In that regard the anthology falls short.

David Lynch’s DumbLand

I tried to subject my friends to it, they switched to Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters. That right there is a comment on how easy it is to sit through.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters is an infamously difficult to swallow film, seemingly content in its inane surreality, so for it to be easier to watch than something is a comment unto itself.

I have only ever seen one other Lynch product through to completion, Eraserhead, so I may not hold as much sway over you as others well versed in his ouvre. In fact, I attempted to watch Inland Empire, but I was scared away by its utterly alien presentation.

I can say, however, that DumbLand is a deliciously audacious exploration of the inanity and absurdity of suburban life. The protagonist (for he is no hero) is a crude, violent caricature of masculine impulsivity. He swears, farts and engages in sometimes disturbing acts of violence. His son is but a sketch of a child, wide eyed and foetus-like in his construction. The wife is a horrid scribble of a person who communicates solely in terrified murmurs and screeches.

Together, they are a portrait of suburban decay. Each episode, of which there are 8, is roughly 4 minutes long. Nothing much of objective interest happens in any of them (save the last), but through Lynch’s lens, the inanity of everyday existence is transmogrified into something surreal and nightmarish.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone. It is purposefully obtuse in its presentation. Voices (all provided by Lynch) are distorted and uncomfortable to listen to, it is violent and vulgar, there is a lack of detail and the animation is laughably sparse at best. These qualities add to the charm, but they can also put people off.

All up, I enjoyed it, even though I feel the joke was on me all along.