Last week, City Weekly’s Scott Renshaw became the latest critic to be attacked for spoiling a movie’s perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. Although Renshaw’s review of “Zootopia” noted that the conflicts between characters “feel genuine, and earned,” and says that there’s “a welcome complexity to the way ‘Zootopia’ approaches prejudice,” he concludes that its central allegory, in which predatory animals are threatened with becoming an oppressed and feared minority, is too incoherent, and sometimes counterproductive, to recommend: His 2 1/2 star review went up on Rotten Tomatoes as “rotten,” and après ça, la déluge.
Here are some of the comments on City Weekly’s site:
“You know how to lose all credibility as a critic? When you’re one of two critics that gave a negative review out of 122 critics.”
“out of 122 reviews, two people said it’s rotten….you’re a dumbass”
“To the TWO reviewers that gave this film a bad rating: Really? Roughly two scenes (at the most) left a bad enough taste in your mouth to give this movie less than 3/5 stars? You’re basically saying that less than 5 minutes of the movie is enough to warrant a failing grade (60%). You’re complaints sound so petty and minor, it’s the reason why everyone finds no credibility in your reviews. The complaints you mentioned in your review can subjectively be viewed as legitimate, however they aren’t enough to objectively ‘fail’ a movie.”
“You just want to get attention. It was definitely an entertaining film”
Here are some of the fun comments from Kate Taylor’s review in the Globe and Mail:
“You should lose your Top Critic status at Rotten Tomatoes for this asinine poor review. You clearly wanted to be the first person to ruin the movies 100% and so you lowered yourself to the level of internet Troll. Nice job.”
“What a tone-deaf review this is. Are you proud to be the only one of 113 Rotten Tomatoes reviewers to give this film a negative score?”
“Way to ruin the 100% party”
On social media, some hit Renshaw with the accusation of writing a contrary take on “Zootopia” for the attention, and indeed, Renshaw’s review is, at the moment, the most-read article on City Weekly’s site. It’s the flip side of the oft-heard charge, most recently lodged by “Gods of Egypt” director Alex Proyas, that critics are afraid to stand out from the herd: “Lock a critic in a room with a movie no one has even seen and they will not know what to make of it,” Proyas wrote. “Because contrary to what a critic should probably be they have no personal taste or opinion, because they are basing their views on the status quo. None of them are brave enough to say ‘well I like it’ if it goes against consensus. Therefore they are less than worthless.”
Either notion is easily disproved by the movie industry’s use of embargoes, which ensure that reviews of major studio releases are posted online at the exact same time: Proyas may not like “Gods of Egypt’s” reviews, but given that most of them were filed before the first one hit the web, it would be impossible for one critic to take their cues from another. With “Zootopia,” some critics made clear via social media the extent to which they were impressed by the movie’s themes clear in advance of their reviews’ publication, but Renshaw’s isn’t a reactionary take, and even critics who generally liked the movie, like Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, noted that the film’s message doesn’t hold together if you look at it too hard.
As I reported in January, art-house owners told me that Rotten Tomatoes percentages are one of the primary factors their patrons use in determining which movies to see, so in a practical sense, the “Fresh” and “Rotten” designations do matter. But anecdotally, my colleagues report mixed results on whether Rotten Tomatoes’ readers actually click through from the site to read the original reviews. In the era before social media and search took over, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb were the best way to track down multiple reviews of a movie. But now people can follow their favorite critics so they never miss a review, and finding more is as simple as Googling a movie title and “review.”
The exception to the rule seems to be reviews that stand out — either negative takes on a widely loved movie, or vice-verse. As Renshaw noted, giving one of the only negative reviews of “Zootopia” led to a pronounced spike in traffic — the same kind I received when I panned the second season of “Fargo” or argued that Leonard DiCaprio didn’t deserve an Oscar for “The Revenant.” But if you check Renshaw’s record, which on Rotten Tomatoes is as easy as clicking on his name, you’ll find he agrees with the Tomatometer 77 percent of the time, which puts him firmly in the critical mainstream. If he were a movie, he’d be Certified Fresh.
So why does a single dissenting review make people so angry? As Film School Rejects, Danny Bowes suggests that the anger over dissenting views reflects larger political trends in the country:
“The fact that the abuse over (lest we forget, imprecise if not outright meaningless) RT scores increases by orders of magnitude when the critic involved is a woman lends further weight to the idea that maybe what’s at stake isn’t a spirited discussion of the arts, or of a beloved hobby, or one’s sacred, fragile childhood, but an attempt to impose will. If it was a discussion of viewpoints, intended to persuade someone with differing views in good faith, the discourse would not consist, entirely, of commands to shut up, to go away, to yield one’s position as reviewer to someone with the accepted views. To purge the cultural conversation of any dissent. To, in microcosm, adopt fascism.”
I’d call it more authoritarian than fascist, and I haven’t noticed any pronounced shift in attacks on aberrant critical views since Trump’s poll numbers started to spike. But it’s an ugly phenomenon, and one that I can only understand from the outside. I know it happens, especially with franchise movies beloved of socially underdeveloped men — Rotten Tomatoes was forced to shut down comments on its page for “The Dark Knight Rises” after critics who panned the film started getting death threats — but the mindset that finds dissent so threatening is foreign to me, as is attaching such emotional importance to a questionably valuable number on an aggregation website. (It certainly doesn’t help to run articles with titles like “‘Zootopia’ Would Have Perfect Reviews Except for These 2 Critics,” contentless fluff that only serves to release the hounds.) Why these particular movies? Perhaps because animation and comic-book movies put us in touch with the uncomplicated joys of childhood, and some people resent having having their perfect bliss disturbed.
How much is Rotten Tomatoes to blame? The “Rotten” rating sends a reader to a review with certain expectations, and if you’re a fan of a movie and know you’re clicking through to one of the only negative reviews, you might arrive in a heated state. (This is also the price for inflammatory “clickbait” headlines: Sometimes they make readers so mad they can’t see the article in front of them.) But in the case of Renshaw and Taylor, their reviews raise questions that “Zootopia’s” fans ought to be only too glad to answer. If the movie’s so great, defending it should be a snap.