In our latest Through the Lens close-up, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston discuss two scenes in Zootopia. The Disney animation in this film is a beautifully designed world where animals walk upright, dress in clothes, and talk like they’re the dominant inhabitants on the planet. Welcome to Zootopia. Bunny Judy Hopps joins the police academy and wants to make the world a better place. On her first day, she’s issuing parking tickets and is soon caught up in the case of finding a missing otter, Mr. Otterman.
At its heart, Zootopia is filled with deeper messages, including the importance of believing in yourself, but it also deals with prejudices and bias. Below, screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston discuss the scene that pays homage to The Godfather and Judy’s Try speech that comes at the end of the film:
Jared: Throughout the movie we pay homages to many different films. We knew we wanted Nick to have a back story where he had friends who he could lean on from time to time.
This idea that he had to lean on a crime lord felt really good to us that he had this checkered past. So, the first thing we tried to figure out was what would be the best animal to play that role? In our research, we talked to our animal experts and asked what was the most despicable mammal that you can think of. He said, “Oh easy, it’s an arctic shrew.” We were expecting many animals, but that wasn’t one we were expecting.
We asked why is that? He said, “They’re terrible. If you put twenty shrews in a bucket and leave them for an hour, only one will be there because it will have eaten the rest. So, we thought that was a great jumping off point for a crime lord, and you have the comedy of him being tiny. Also knowing that we had these great homages in the movie, we thought doing a tribute to The Godfather would be perfect. As we got into the scene, if you look at the designs, they pretty much recreated the set from The Godfather from the furniture to the house, what Mr. Big is wearing. Even the dialogue from the very top is verbatim from the film, we didn’t change it until Nick says they’re there against their will. We started changing the scene a bit where you see that Nick has this great dynamic with this guy, but Judy believes she is a police officer, they’re noble, and she has a right to question anyone she wants. Even though she’s a bunny and there are polar bears around, she feels she has some sort of authority in this room. She’s not willing to back down and Nick starts getting nervous and worried as she pushes Mr. Big and we the audience know that things are going to go downhill quickly.
Michael Giacchino did a great job of giving us a score there that really sounded like The Godfather. What’s so neat about this scene is Judy comes in and says, “I’m a police officer, you’re going to do what I say.” She attacks the problem with her own view of the world, and Nick is telling her not to do that, but to be quiet. Nick’s view of the world, that they’re probably going to die, is what’s going to happen and he’s going to be in charge. Ultimately, when they get into trouble, it’s actually Judy’s noble action that happened earlier in the movie. It’s that what saves them. When Mr. Big’s daughter comes in, she recognizes her as the one who saved her, and that’s what changes and turns the whole scene, and disproves Nick’s world view and doubles down on Judy’s world view.
Phil: Jared was talking about these arctic shrews being appropriately vicious so that make sense. The fact it was a teeny tiny animal made sense. Anywhere we could, we were looking for thematic elements where a duality would exist. So, you take a shew who is tiny, and if you look at it, you think, “Oh, it’s a tiny shrew and it’s harmless.” Our preconceived notion of what a shrew should be was flipped on its ear.
In later scenes, we did the same thing with an elephant, and so anytime we could take the audience’s preconceived notion of an animal and turn it the other way, we did that wherever we could. As it turns out, it was just good luck.
Jared: Mr. Big delivers the information, and gives them a key piece to the puzzle. He says, “Deep down we’re still animals.” Preconceived notion is what the whole town is going to get spun out about later in the movie when they think that predators are dangerous.
He cops to that, that deep down there is part of us that we can’t change who we are. We started laying the groundwork here to hear that point of view early in the movie, so when Judy reaches that same conclusion, later on, we believe her thinking that.
Phil: Other than being a fun set piece, there is information and the story is being forwarded. We’re learning at the end of that scene about Mr. Big’s relationship to Mr. Otterton, the line is that he went crazy, and Judy says, “But he’s just a sweet little otter.” Again, Judy’s preconceived notion of what an otter is, this sweet thing, but it went “savage.” As Jared says, those preconceived notions are what’s going to tear the city apart. That’s really the first big clue that they get.
Jared: We take several passes of a scene, we’ll write it, the artists will board it and edit it. Early on, Nick was driving that scene and not Judy. We realized that was a mistake and that Judy needed to drive the scene. Part of this movie is her understanding that you can try hard and it doesn’t work out the way you think it will. The key thing for Judy was for her to learn something but unexpectedly be proven correct. Her philosophy wins, but her method didn’t win, but it’s still her personality and the way she sees the world that saves the day.
Phil: She comes into things a bit naively. When Maurice LaMarche does this amazing Brando impersonation, and he asks her if she’s a performer. Her go-to is that she is a police officer, and she’s threatening him. Nick speaks the language of crime and he’s trying to cover up, while Judy doesn’t get the nuance of the situation. That was something that as the movie pushes and pulls, the scene was successful and funny, and wherever we could we wanted Judy to be trying her best, but a bit wrong-headed in her approach, and this was another case of that. She has the best intentions but she’s not going about it in the best way.
Jared: Both characters are learning in the scene, and that ultimately bonds them together.
Judy’s Try Speech:
Jared: We knew we wanted her to do a wrap-up, and it felt natural that the beginning of the movie where she goes to the police academy, that we wanted her to be welcoming the next group of cadets. We also knew we wanted Nick to be one of those cadets, it would allow us to give her a reason to give a speech. We didn’t want Judy to just talk. It made sense that she be giving an uplifting speech and one that she needed to impart wisdom and admit failures, but also give the cadet she’s speaking to and the audience, hope.
Thematically, one of the things we are proudest of is that Judy recognizes the bias within herself. Which for an animated film heroine is unheard of. She sees that she has prejudices and has that sickness inside her, and she’s seeing that, and it allows her to move forward and help the city out.
In this wrap up that she’s giving the police academy, she’s realizing that life is more complicated than a bumper sticker which is what we look for in films. You want a clean and easy message at the end. That’s fine. The fact is that racism and bias are much more complicated than that. We would be irresponsible to think that an animated film or any film can solve those problems. If in this moment, Judy is saying we have limits and flaws, but let’s have a conversation, and that’s our hope for the film that it will start a conversation.
Once we landed the idea that Judy is complicit in the problem, we knew the benediction had to be where she was talking about that and encouraging the city and give them hope.
Phil: We had an amazing expert, Dr. Shakti Butler to help with the movie. She’s an expert on prejudice and bias. A lot of her research and what inspired us was that these are worldwide issues and have been part of the human experience for centuries. There’s no easy fix. If there’s hope there’s going to be a fix, it’s that’s everyone is making some attempt to try to make it better. One side of that argument can’t do it alone. Everyone has to step up and say there’s something broken here, and we all need to work together to fix it. Maybe it can’t be fixed, but it can be better, and that would make the world a better place. It felt like that was message and sentiment we wanted to leave the audience with.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to get fixed overnight. Who knows if it will ever get fixed, maybe it won’t but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make it a bit better and that doesn’t mean it can’t get a bit better if we do try.