Written by Jared Bush, Phil Johnston (110 pages)
*This post is based only on a reading of the script for Zootopia. I have note yet seen the movie, though I would like to.
LINK to the script: http://www.waltdisneystudiosawards.com/screenplay/zootopia.pdf
Zootopia is a wonderful story. It’s clean and straightforward with appropriate (cinematically familiar) twists and an important underlying message. The story follows a bunny, Judy Hopps, who wants to be a police officer. The problem, at least in her well-meaning parents’ eyes, is that there has never been a bunny police officer before. Most police officers are bigger animals, more likely to be predators than prey. Judy’s parents, Bonnie and Stu, want their daughter to work the farm like them. It’s a safe job, and it’s a job that fits them.
The story, beyond Judy’s aspirations and eventual police work, deals with animals who are stereotyped and perform jobs that fit those stereotypes. In the big city of Zootopia, though, animals can do what they want. There is freedom there, and Judy wants nothing more than to grow up to be a police officer in the big city. Basically, the big city is progressive while the country subscribes to more outdated beliefs.
When I try to write my own stories, I start with the idea that you have to introduce your protagonist as they are right away. By that I mean, we would introduce Judy as an aspiring police officer on page 1. But in Zootopia, we don’t meet adult Judy, going through the police academy, until page 8. For the first 7 pages we see Judy as a young child/bunny. These early pages establish her goal, the doubt she faces as well as the fox, Gideon, who antagonizes her. Young Judy puts on a play about how animals have moved past their savage ways when the jungle was a dangerous place. Now the world is safe, and predators and prey can coexist. It’s a big, wonderful new world is the point. But underneath that idyllic image there is a suspicion by some (her parents) that they can’t simply move past their biological tendencies. Gideon the fox torments Judy the bunny because that’s what a fox would do to a bunny. These 7 pages set up the world of the film in many ways (at least the theme), and while it does establish Judy’s defining characteristic (the last thing she says as a young bunny before we cut to her as an adult is “I don’t know when to quit”), we haven’t actually met the version of Judy that we will follow for the rest of the story.
Now, young Judy essentially is the same as adult Judy, so maybe you could say we have met her, but the plot doesn’t begin until page 8. The first 7 pages are really just a prologue, establish important character traits and the rules of the world. I think you could get rid of the prologue and not miss a whole lot. Some stuff might be lost, but it’s reinforced multiple times that Judy would be the first police officer bunny and that her parents are worried for her safety. Hell, Judy turns out to have her own subtle prejudices about animal biology/tendencies, but that’s not set up until she first meets her eventual friend, Nick the fox, on page 23. “I just wanna say, you’re a great dad and just a… a real articulate fella,” she says to him, and he responds by sarcastically saying “it’s rare that I find someone so non-patronizing.” It’s a short moment, but this sets up a mentality within Judy that will become a huge story point later in the film, once she and Nick have bonded.
Okay, back to the plot. Judy becomes the first bunny police officer in Zootopia, but she isn’t treated with respect. She is placed on parking duty, and she notices Nick and his son mistreated by an elephant ice cream parlor owner. She steps in and addresses the clear species-ism going on. It’s only later that she realizes that Nick’s son isn’t really his son, and they have a plan to buy the ice cream and sell it for a larger price. Nick is one sly fox.
Later, still on parking duty, Judy sees a weasel steal some onions, and she pursues him through different parts of the city. She eventually catches him, and the chief of police ridicules her for not doing her job. When an otter comes in pleading for them to find her husband, Judy immediately volunteers for the job. The chief of police fires her except that the assistant mayor steps in and saves Judy’s job, excited for the press of the first bunny police officer solving a case.
At this point it has already been established that there are 14 missing animal cases, of which Emmitt Otter is one. The chief of police tells Judy she has 48 hours to find Emmitt or else she’s fired. This is the lock in moment, forcing the character onto their journey and into the second act. This takes place on page 38. In screenplays, 1 page is generally equal to one minute of screen time, and the first act typically ends somewhere around page 25 to 30, so it’s a little behind in Zootopia, though that is partially because of the 7 page prologue.
Act 1 is like the pilot episode of a tv show. You have to establish the story while also setting up the characters and the world. In act 2 you only have to set up the story. By this point in time we know Judy, we’ve been given an introduction to many other side characters (who will show up later in the story), and we know the world she lives and works in. But there’s still a lot more to be set up.
Judy has hardly anything to go off of, but she has a photograph with a ‘pawpsicle’ like the one Nick and his fellow fox have been selling for marked up prices. She finds Nick and basically blackmails him into helping her. He admits how much money he makes, and she shows him his tax forms, informing him that he hasn’t reported his full finances. She also records him with a special voice-recording pen, forcing him to help her out. Judy needs Nick because he might know something about Emmitt.
In that scene, Nick’s first line of dialogue to Judy is “Hey, it’s Officer Toot Toot,” which he says mockingly while poking fun at her. His last line, showing the change of power in the scene, is “Okay. You’re the boss.”
Nick leads Judy to a Mystic Spring Oasis where he last saw Emmitt. There they learn that Emmitt got into a white van, and they find the address. Judy needs to run the plates but can’t because she doesn’t yet have access to the police database. Nick wants to leave, having fulfilled his purpose, so he asks for the pen with his incriminating audio, but Judy refuses to give it to him. She wants Nick to run the plates for her since he claimed “any moron can run a plate.” The story needs Judy and Nick to remain together despite his reluctance. It’s just a buddy cop comedy, really, so the script gets him to stick around by having Judy tell him the investigation will last for no more than 36 more hours, and that’s good enough for Nick (though I have a feeling he would put up more of a fight, demanding to leave).
Nick takes her to the DMV and gets his revenge (he’s bitter) by having the sloths who work there run the plates. They’re sloths so they’re incredibly slow.
Once they get the plate information and leave the DMV, there is still no reason to have Nick hang around. The script addresses the feud between them. Not only is Nick still bitter about the arrangement, but now Judy is mad: “You waster the day on purpose… does seeing me fail somehow make you feel better about your own sad, miserable life?” Nick responds that it does.
Nick asks for the pen, and Judy angrily tosses it over a fence. Her anger works in keeping them together because she then hurries to grab the pen before she does, and Nick admires her own slyness because it reflects his own nature. We finally get to the point where the characters are together not because they have to be but because they want to be. In other words they have begrudging respect, and their relationship has evolved.
Next they face their first big roadblock when they find the car, and it belongs to a mob boss (animated version of the Godfather). He nearly kills them, but the godfather’s daughter saves them when she says Judy saver her life the day before, which Judy did while chasing after the thieving weasel in act 1. It’s a nice payoff from a subtle (but I suppose noticeable) set up in act 1. The story, like any well-plotted story, is full of set ups like these).
The midpoint, I suspect, is after this, at the wedding reception for the godfather’s daughter that’s already in progress. This is when Judy and Nick get new information about their case. They learn that Emmitt attacked someone, which is a surprise since it sets him up to be villainous. This is the first sign of the real mystery becoming exposed.
The godfather sends them to talk to a jaguar named Manchas, the driver of the car they had tracked down. Manchas is paranoid and tells them that Emmitt was “savage.” Then there is an unseen commotion, which makes Manchas go crazy and nearly kill Judy and Nick. Judy saves Nick’s life, giving them more of a reason to stick together. This scene elaborates on the mystery set up in the scene before as there is no clear reason why the jaguar should be hostile.
When the rest of the police show up, and the jaguar has mysteriously disappeared, the chief of police demands Judy’s badge. Nick steps to her defense and reminds him that she still has 10 hours to solve the crime. They are now good friends.
It’s right after this moment that we get a glimpse into Nick’s childhood. He was bullied as a kid for being a fox. Young Nick was set to join a club, and the other kids animals held him down and put a muzzle on him, saying they would be stupid not to since he’s a fox. “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point in trying to be anything else,” he says, which directly contrasts Judy who is all about trying. It also adds to the theme of the dangers of stereotyping.
Next they look at traffic camera footage and see that the jaguar was taken by wolves who picked him up in a van. They take notice of the road the van is on and follow it to an asylum where they find not only Emmitt but also the other 13 missing animals, all caged and “savage.” Judy discovers that Mayor Lionheart is behind this. She calls the police, and they arrest the mayor. Everything goes swell, and Judy is a hero.
Judy slips up in a press conference, revealing her species-ism when she says that all 14 “savage” animals are predators. The news media runs with the story that predators can become hyper violent. Though Judy doesn’t realize what she’s saying, Nick confronts her about it, reminding her that he too is a predator. “You’re not like them,” she says, making it worse. Nick turns his back on her, and she realizes she has created a big problem. Act 2, then, ends on page 84.
So we start act 3 with a new status quo: there is a high degree of fear-mongering in Zootopia, the once-proud and diverse city which is now full of frightened glances and pre-emptive hatred. Judy is considered a hero, but the guilt of what she said (and the storm she caused) is eating her alive. The assistant mayor wants her to be the face of the police department, which once would have thrilled her but now now.
Judy eventually resigns from the police department and returns home, miserably working her parents’ farm. In the third acts of a film, there is usually a moment when the character finds new information or learns something they need to learn to be the catalyst for the climax of the film. In a romantic comedy, for example, the lady who turned her back on the man who who messed up, might notice a letter he wrote to her that we first saw in act 1 or early in act 2. In other words, there is a moment of realization that pays off something we’ve already seen but haven’t registered yet as important.
While Judy is at the farm, Gideon, the fox who tormented her as a child, shows up and demonstrates how nice he is, even though he’s a predator. This shocks Judy and forces her to examine her own biases. Then Gideon makes a casual remark about the flowers being called “night howlers,” a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in act 2 and which Judy had assumed referred to Mayor Lionheart’s wolves who helped detain the savage animals.
Now Judy knows that there has been a plan concocted to essentially poison certain predators and to make them savage, creating a false narrative about predator danger and producing a high degree of fear and violence in Zootopia.
She returns to the city and makes nice with Nick. Then they set out to find the night howlers, acting on one piece of information: the whereabouts of Duke Weaselton, the weasel Judy chased and arrested in act 1. The onions he stole were actually night howlers.
They find him and the night howler farm and a big chase sequence follows. Eventually they learn that the assistant mayor is behind the plot. She, like Judy, is prey and wanted to take down the predators, creating what she considered a better world. She states her entire plan, and Judy records it with her voice-recording pen. The plot is exposed, and everything works out well in the end.
A few other observations: It’s impressive to see how many characters and ideas are set up so early in the film and so organically within the story. One character might show up, like the weasel, in a scene that serves the narrative purpose of forcing Judy into the point of no return, but then you don’t realize that the scene also established the weasel as a character through which Judy and Nick will solve the night howler case in act 3.
The relationship between Judy and Nick is a very familiar buddy cop sort of dynamic. The DMV sloth scene, possibly the most comedy-packed scene, occurs because of the way they work against each other. Nick punishes Judy in the sly way that he can since she has threatened him with jail time. Nick has to be forced to work with Judy and must find her irritating for this dynamic to work. So it’s set up in act 1 when Judy falls for Nick’s trick. Then it might be a little too coincidental that the first clue Judy has for the missing otter is directly related to Nick. But of course, for the script to work, every step has to be set up already. So you know that Judy’s first clue must be related to something we’ve already seen.
When Nick is forced to work with Judy, he’s frustrated, as you might imagine. So they go to the spa center to get the first piece of information, and Judy asks Nick to stay, pseudo-threatening him with jail time again and promising him the investigation won’t last very long. So he kind of reluctantly stays and takes her to the DMV. After this scene, with Judy realizing how much time they’ve wasted, they have their first real fight. Judy is pissed at Nick for wasting her time, and Nick is pissed that she won’t let him go. Right after the fight, though, they find some common ground when Judy fools Nick, pretending to give him the incriminating evidence before tossing it away, and Nick has some begrudging respect for Judy. It’s written into the script:
After this they track down the car and end up in a situation in which Judy saves their lives because she had previously helped the godfather’s daughter. Now Nick owes something to Judy. In the next scene they visit the jaguar, and Judy actually does save Nick’s life. The police chief shows up, demands her badge, but Nick stands up for her.
At this point they have traded blows like in a boxing match, but the first blows were attacks against each other, and the second two “blows” were signs of affection. Judy threatens Nick to force him to help her – Nick wastes her time by taking her to the DMV where the sloths take way too long to do simple tasks – Judy doubles down and again forces Nick to help her by refusing to give him the pen with his incriminating audio on it – Judy saves Nick’s life – Nick stands up to the police chief on Judy’s behalf.
That’s how we end up at the midpoint: there is new information about the plot (hints at the underlying mystery surrounding the disappearances) and we’ve reached a new stage in Judy and Nick’s relationship. Similarly, act 2 will end with the next progression in both the missing animal plot as well as a change in Judy and Nick’s relationship. At that point they find the missing animals, but Judy makes some inappropriate and prejudiced statements about predatory animals, alienating herself from Nick.