Examining a Story with New Eyes (A Zootopia Review)

I recently became aware that one of my weaknesses as a writer is the fact that it is very, very easy for me to get into that suspended disbelief mode that all storytellers want their audience to be in. When it comes to entertainment, it’s very easy for me to sit back with a story and nod and agree with all the points and not ask questions.

Good for an audience member.

Bad for an aspiring writer.

I’ve found that I’ve approached my own writing with a similar mindset, in that I’m lost in the world and the story that I’ve created, and I don’t notice the flaws in it.

I’m slowly getting better about that and in the recent things I’ve read and watched, I’ve tried to take a new look at it.

This is part musing, part review, and part… eh… fangirling… Sorry…

Seen Zootopia yet?

If you have, continue in safety. If not, be aware that there are some small spoilers ahead, though I’ve tried to keep them as minimal as possible (and I won’t spoil the biggest climax).

My husband and I took our almost 6-year-old to see Zootopia last weekend. I was pretty excited about it, because just from looking at the trailer, I could tell that it would contain a lot of my favorite entertainment elements, like talking animals, “enemies” becoming best friends, and humor that was funny without being crass (I hate potty humor), plus Disney has always had a soft spot in my heart.

The premise of the movie involves Judy Hopps, a bunny with dreams of being a police officer and making the world a better place. She has to struggle against unsupportive parents (who say it’s okay to dream but it’s better to settle and be safe), bigger mammals, and a career choice that doesn’t cater to a small creature like a rabbit.

One of the things I appreciate about Judy is that early on in a montage of her police academy training, we see her struggling against obstacles that even the bigger mammals have trouble with, and then even struggling with the fact that the academy isn’t even built for smaller mammals (i.e. she falls into a large toilet). She doesn’t whine about how unfair the setup is, or how she’s discriminated against because of her small size. Instead, she works harder and figures out how to use her own special skills to excel. She gets a little handout by the Mayor assigning her to the heart of Zootopia’s police force, but that’s the only one she gets. The Chief of Police is less than thrilled to have a bunny on the force and assigns her parking duty.

Still determined, Judy goes above and beyond the call of duty by writing twice the quota of parking tickets required, before noon. Which we then see doesn’t exactly work the best because all her overachieving does is get various citizens of Zootopia mad at her.

Things don’t get any better for her when she meets up with the story’s other protagonist, the smooth-talking fox, Nick Wilde. He bundles her up neatly in a little con job he’s running and slips away with the parting words of “You’ll never be a real cop.”

Through a little luck, she gets assigned the case of a missing mammal, Emmett Otterton (which made my husband and I laugh hysterically because one of his favorite childhood Christmas movies was a Muppet production called Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas), but the stakes are raised as the chief gives her the ultimatum that she has 48 hours to solve the case, or she resigns. Judy’s dreams now rest on her one shot with a case that has no leads and no witnesses and only one traffic camera shot shows Mr. Otterton’s last known whereabouts, until she spots something in Otterton’s paw and a familiar fox in the background.

Which leads her back to Nick Wilde. Judy puts together what she’s learned of ‘sly foxes’ and makes sure she has all her bases covered to assure that Nick has no choice but to help her. As Finnick, Nick’s con partner, says gleefully, “She hustled you good!”

Of course, Nick isn’t willing to make things easy on Judy and does his best to ‘help’ while making her as frustrated and uncomfortable as possible.

As happens in good stories, Judy has the roller coaster of plot emotions, where things are going well, then they suddenly dip down low, then she gets another high, and then things fall even lower than before. One of my favorite scenes, shortly after Judy saves Nick’s life, involves one of those low moments and Nick softening up and standing up for her. This leads into a little scene of Nick and Judy where we get a closer look in Nick’s past and why he behaves the way he does.

And here’s an aside, both of the main protagonists experience bullying in their childhood by mammals on the opposite end of the food chain. Judy is bullied by a fox, where Nick is bullied by a group of prey animals. Judy pushes past the event and goes to prove that she’s not a scared little bunny, whereas Nick takes the bullies’ words to heart and decided that if they’re going to see him as a sneaky, lowlife fox, then that’s what he’s going to be.

Another aside on that same thread, because later in the movie, Judy runs into the old childhood bully, who apologizes for the way he acted when they were kids. My husband really appreciated that little touch because he had an incident a couple of years back where he ran into one of the bullies from his childhood and the man actually apologized to him for being such a jerk. A nice little nod to the way that people can change over the years.

Now, I’m going to be treading into much bigger spoiler areas, but this is the part of the movie where I thought it really got good. Judy and Nick think they crack the case, and Judy’s riding a huge high. Everything is perfect. She’s proved that a bunny can make a good cop. And then… she makes a mistake. She says a few careless words under pressure. She screws up and everything crashes. Not just for her and Nick, but for all of Zootopia. Judy sets off a chain of events that grips the city in fear and sends her spiraling down in guilt. She wanted to make the world a better place, but instead, she’s torn it apart.

Judy hits the biggest low in the movie.  She’s lost everything, and she’s miserable. She gives up. Now, there’s a little ‘prop’ that shows up early in the movie that’s related to Judy’s farm upbringing and it crops up (hah!) again here. A little bit of dialogue between her parents and the old bully and suddenly Judy realizes the huge thing that she missed in her assessment of the case and she goes speeding back to Zootopia and goes looking for Nick.

I dearly love this moment between Nick and Judy and I think it does a lot of showing what a strong character Judy is. She tells Nick what she’s learned and he replies with a sarcastic, “Wow, isn’t that interesting,” and walks away. Judy stops him and delivers a beautiful apology. She doesn’t make excuses. She doesn’t try to shift the blame. She accepts responsibility. She has a beautiful line where she tells Nick that after they’ve fixed things, he can go on hating her and her voice breaks (and yes, my heart was in pieces on the floor). We get a great look at just how the friendship between Judy and Nick has grown and how badly she hurts because she’s lost her friend, but she wants to fix as much as she can, even if it can never be what it was. The sequence was beautifully written and acted out.

There’s one more major scene that I loved that brings everything full circle. Throughout the movie, I did my best to pay attention to details. Props that kept coming up, little motions that the characters made at key moments, and things that I suspected were foreshadowing. I thought I had it figured out. I told my husband afterwards, that, as we watched the big, climatic scene, I had gotten totally sucked in. My mind was racing, trying to see the resolution of the scene, how Nick and Judy would survive. I couldn’t see it, though the little writer in my brain was jumping up and down waving flags screaming, “You missed something!” When the big reveal happened, I saw how all the little clues had been there, but I’d gotten caught up in the moment and the world, and had missed it.

Of course, that’s probably what the writers intended all along.

“It’s called a hustle, Sweetheart.”

There’s a lot of talk about the movie and how it’s focused on racism, white privilege, etc. I agree and disagree and that’s a wonderful thing about movies and books. You can get a message across and have it interpreted in many different ways.

My take. Look at Zootopia. You’ve got animals of all sizes. They’ve done their best to make sure everyone is included, but in Judy’s case specifically, we see that it’s not perfect. Example, her first day on the job when she goes to get in the chair that’s way too big for her. But Judy doesn’t complain that there’s a certain discrimination against a small to medium sized mammal. She does her best. You’ve got lots of different species, yet there’s not a lot of them walking around being offended.

I appreciated that, because so many in our world get offended by the littlest things. It’s good for us to take a step back, chill, and understand that we’re different and we can disagree, but still get along. And as Judy says in her monologue at the end. Real life is a little more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. But try to make the world a better place.

There’s also a great point made during a conversation about how fear is dividing the city and a character observes that “Fear always works.” It’s a great thing to keep in mind, because nothing mobilizes masses faster than fear. Instill fear in people, whether it’s a real or imagined fear, and you have control.

Overall, I thought Zootopia was brilliant. Great characters, a fantastic storyline, absolutely beautiful animation, humor without being crass, plenty of excitement and suspense, and many great life lessons in a cute package that’s not preachy. Oh, and the references to everything from classic Disney movies, to modern shows, to pop culture. My husband and I loved seeing how many Easter eggs we could catch.

Yes, I’m fangirling pretty hard over this movie and I’ve even been inspired to write a fanfiction about it (though I’m not going so far as to ship Judy and Nick, since I adore the friendship as is). I think it’s well worth seeing in the theaters. Be warned, it’s got some intense scenes with the savage predators that might frighten small children. My almost 6-year-old was a little overwhelmed for a few days, though she’s recovered fine and was being a ‘savage predator’ chasing her little sisters around the other day.

Oh, and if you want a great laugh, check out what they’ve done with the song titles on the soundtrack. They’re a hoot.

Have you seen Zootopia? Did you enjoy it or was it not your thing? Let me know in the comments below.


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