To be honest, I didn't expect to be bowled over by either Disney's Zootopia (released as Zootropolis in Europe) or Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. What struck me when I saw the first trailers for these two films was that the underlying conceits seemed eerily similar. A world with animals in charge (and no humans) on the one hand, a world with dinosaurs in charge (and humans an animal species among the rest) on the other? Same difference! What's more, these ideas weren't original: in fact, they seemed downright lazy. How many children's books, comics and animated films aren't built around the animals-as-people idea? More, even, than there are films and television programmes cashing in on kids' fascination with dinosaurs. All in all, it looked like neither Disney nor Pixar had quite hit on the next great idea for an animated picture yet.
Well, once again I learned that one shouldn't doubt The Mouse. I was seriously impressed by Zootopia: as for The Good Dinosaur, it wasn't bad - I bawled my eyes out at least three times - but I retained more of my initial scepticism. Pixar films, though often profoundly moving, are generally considered as a little more brainy and challenging than heartstring-plucking Disney fare. I'm not sure I agree, but I can see that there's a case to be made along those lines - Inside Out was certainly a proof of just how brainboxy Pixar can be. This time round, though, I think I can say with some truth that Zootopia was a more cerebral offering than The Good Dinosaur.
The underlying message of Zootopia is that you should overcome your prejudices which, on the face of it, sounds ickily moralistic. But rather than serve up this message on a plate and force-feed the audience with it - as, believe me, so many Swedish books, films and TV programmes aimed at children do - Zootopia gets to grips with its subject and doesn't shrink away from some of the hard questions it poses. What if you are limited to some extent by a group identity, though you don't want to be - is a career as a cop really such a great idea for a rabbit? What if someone lives up to the preconceived opinions you are trying to free yourself from, and what if this happens more than once? What if you feel you have a justified grievance against a specific group, rather than specific individuals who happen to belong to it? When does keeping an open mind risk becoming silly, or downright dangerous? It's hard not to snigger as a naughty child when Nick, the film's cynical fox, ridicules the wide-eyed rabbit heroine Judy's idealistic views of predators and prey who "live in harmony and sing Kumbaya". (Before it gets confusing, I should add that predators don't actually eat prey in this film - they've evolved away from that, apparently - so harmony between the species is not an unachievable goal.) Of course, the film sticks to its anti-prejudice message, but it acknowledges that shedding your prejudices is a great deal easier said than done - "real life is messy" - and bothers to put up intelligent arguments for why it's still worthwhile.
Some viewers have found it confusing that the predators and prey of Zootopia can't be equated with real-life groups in the human world, but I find this one of the film's strengths: it makes you think about the nature of prejudice generally, rather than distracting you with tiresome parallels in the "immigrants as aliens" vein. It has been said that the film is about racism, but actually it casts the net wider than that. My thoughts turned more to sexism when I saw it: the problems faced by Judy Hopps and Vice-Mayor Bellwether (a sheep doing all the donkey work for the vain lion Mayor) are those typically faced by ambitious women in a male-dominated working environment, while the accusation which surfaces towards predators - that they are genetically programmed to be violent - is a slur many men will be familiar with. That the predators, who at first seem to be rather favoured in Zootopian society, end up as the target of a toxic hate campaign is a clever twist, reminding us that victims of prejudice aren't always "marginalised". There's more: hands up if you recognise the impulse that makes an anxious mother draw her child further away from a perfectly harmless tiger on the tube, after there's been a scare about predators running wild. I've certainly been there.
If all this sounds impossibly worthy - my point is rather that it isn't - you can simply see it as a sweet "buddy movie" starring a fox and a bunny taking on bad guys. There's a major plot hole, though: what do the predators actually eat? You can't tell me Mayor Lionheart grew big and strong on wilting carrots.
A beautiful friendship is at the heart of The Good Dinosaur too, and its saving grace. The message of this film is that you should overcome your fear, but the point is never forcefully argued. Admittedly, the protagonist, a young dinosaur herbivore called Arlo, is seriously wimpy, but his parents' ham-fisted attempts to help him man (or dino) up only put my back up, and to some extent Arlo's. The whole "making your mark" scheme - as the dinosaur children perform feats which help their family farm (these are evolved dinos, remember) they are allowed to put their footprint on the family's silo next to their parents' - is a terrible idea, which only confirms Arlo's place as the runt of the litter. Only when we leave the realms of dodgy dinosaur parenting and concentrate on Arlo's against-the-odds blossoming friendship with a feral human boy, Spot, does the film become engaging.
I had other issues with the film besides the simplistic "be a man/dinosaur" theme: the not overly interesting premise (what if the meteor had missed, and dinosaurs had evolved to become, erm, hillbilly farmers and ranchers?); the clunky title (I suppose it references the thriller The Good German, set in post-WWII Europe, but what's the connection exactly?) and the oddly ugly dinosaur animation - like child drawings, and that much more noticeable as the backdrops are stupendously ultra-realistic. Nevertheless, all my defences crumbled away when Arlo and Spot bonded over lost loved ones - a three-hanky scene. This time, then, the Debating Society's prize goes to Disney, while the Big Weepie prize goes to Pixar. Not that I didn't cry a bit over Zootopia, too.