Script Analysis: “Zootopia” — Part 2: Plot
Scott Myers
21

What inspired me to want to analyze Zootopia was the sheer amount of complex threading throughout the story. There are so many set-ups, payoffs and callbacks throughout the entire storyline. I’ve listed my observations about most of the major ones I was able to tease out. If this kind of writing is of interest to other writers, I think Zootopia is a good example to study.

Something I noticed in particular is what seems to be the conscious design to put one scene at the center of the story: the news conference. It’s as if the entire story were written to give as much weight as possible to this one scene. I think that scene holds tremendous emotional impact because it focuses on the film’s primary theme. This is the hurricane at the heart of the story where everything flies apart. Remove this one scene and the entire thing falls.

As another observation, this story takes place entirely from Judy’s point of view, meaning the audience experiences the story exactly as she does. Except for a couple flashbacks, there isn’t a scene where Judy is absent or where the audience learns something that Judy doesn’t know. This fits with the detective mystery genre, which is a major part of the overall external plot.

As I see it there are four major plot threads in this story:

1. The who-done-it detective story (what’s causing predators to become savage?);

2. Judy’s growth arc from idealist to realist;

3. Nick’s growth arc from outcast hustler to included member of society;

4. The evolving relationship between Judy and Nick.

ACT 1

P. 1–7: Young Judy Hopps

We learn about Judy’s idealism and courage. She stands up to a bully in behalf of other kids.

SET-UP: Judy’s voiceover about predators having an uncontrollable biological urge to kill will cause her problems years later at the news conference.

SET-UP: Judy’s death scene (“Blood! Blood! Blood! And Death!”) sets-up the reveal in the climax that she wasn’t killed by Nick’s attack as it at first appears.

SET-UP: Her first run-in with a bully is with a fox, which undoubtedly left a psychological mark she will have to deal with when Nick enters her life.

SET-UP: Gideon is initially shown to be an unrepentant bully, which will turn out to be a falsehood.

SET-UP: Gideon wounds Judy and appears to be the victor, but Judy retrieves the tickets without his knowledge. This sets up the same scenario in the climax.

SET-UP: Judy’s enthusiastic declaration that in Zootopia “anyone can be anything” sets up the initial point-of-view conflict with Nick and her own spiritual collapse following the news conference.

SET-UP: We get our first glimpse of the strength of Judy’s character when she kicks Gideon in the face in spite of his strength and her weak position (lying on the ground).

SET-UP: Judy’s perseverance: “I don’t know when to quit.”

SET-UP: Judy’s courage to stand up for the weaker children to retrieve the tickets presages her willingness to go against Bogo’s wishes and volunteer to find the missing otter.

ARCS: Judy’s growth.

P. 8–11: Police training academy

We see Judy actually live her ideals and that she’s capable of facing and overcoming overwhelming odds to achieve her goals.

SET-UP: We get a quick glimpse into Mayor Lionheart’s ego and insensitivity and Bellwether’s low status. We can understand, by the end, Bellwether’s motivation to retaliate against predators.

SET-UP: Judy’s ability to defeat the rhino in the boxing ring by knocking his fist against himself will prove useful later when she knocks one of Doug’s henchmen off the subway car and into the railroad switch.

SET-UP: Mayor Lionheart’s assignment of Judy to Precinct 1 sets up Chief Bogo’s resentment.

ARCS: Judy’s growth.

P. 11–16: Leaving Family

We learn that Judy comes from an environment concerned about safety with worries about predators.

SET-UP: Stu’s excessive concern about predators, and foxes in particular, reinforces Judy’s unconscious fear, though she plays it down in conversation. She believes she’s taking the fox repellant as a peace offering to her over-protective father, but it will color her interactions with Nick later.

SET-UP: The musical montage shows the train passing through environments that will figure in the story (Tundratown and the Rain Forest District).

ARCS: Judy’s growth.

P. 16–20: First Day — Police HQ

Judy arrives in Zootopia, joins the precinct and becomes a meter maid.

SET-UP: Judy’s return to take the fox repellant shows she’s not as confident about her beliefs as she would like to think. That little canister will turn into a stick of dynamite against her at the news conference.

SET-UP: Judy’s reminder to Bogo that she graduated at the top of her class indicates she has bet her identity on what happened at the police academy. This sets her up for emotional upheaval both as the unappreciated meter maid, and later when she resigns her commission and returns to the farm.

SET-UP: Chief Bogo is made to appear to be the stereotypical hardboiled policeman.

CALLBACK: Judy’s determination of write 200 parking tickets plays back to her statement about not knowing when to quit.

ARCS: Detective mystery, Judy’s growth.

P. 20–24: Nick Wilde, Loving Father

Judy and Nick meet for the first time and Nick appears to be a model citizen. Judy faces her own misjudgments based on stereotyping.

SET-UP: This gives us the first misdirection in the story. At first we believe Nick is a loving, dutiful father, a good member of society unjustly stereotyped by the ice cream shop proprietor and Judy.

SET-UP: Judy pops the safety strap on the can of fox repellant she carries on her belt, but relents. At the news conference later, Nick will say he noticed the canister the first time they met.

ARCS: Relationship.

P. 24–28: Nick Wilde, Hustler

Judy’s second encounter with Nick reveals another person entirely. Nick proves to be the cunning fox stereotype after all.

CALLBACK: Nick taunts Judy by calling out her naiveté to believe that “anyone can be anything” in Zootopia.

SET-UP: Nick believes everyone can only be what they are: “Sly fox. Dumb bunny.” Although resentful of the moniker at the time, Judy will call herself a “dumb bunny” during her tearful apology to Nick under the bridge.

SET-UP: While walking along the street talking with Judy, Nick snatches a blueberry from a street vendor and eats it, which sets up his love of the blueberries from Judy’s family farm he discovers in the truck as they leave to seek Duke Weaselton.

ARCS: Judy’s growth, relationship.

P. 28–31: The Dream Begins to Crumble

Judy begins to question her career choice, then gets a chance to prove herself as a police officer.

SET-UP: The items Weaselton stole are the ingredient for the serum that causes predators to revert.

SET-UP: The lady shrew Judy saves is the daughter of Mr. Big. This later wins Mr. Big’s appreciation and cooperation and saves Judy’s and Nick’s lives.

ARCS: Judy’s growth, detective mystery.

P. 34–38: Inciting Event: Otterton

Judy and Bogo butt heads over her place in the department. Judy nearly loses her job until Mrs. Otterton’s chance appearance provides Judy the chance to jump into real police work.

PAYOFF: Bogo reveals his resentment about Lionheart assigning Judy to his precinct.

PAYOFF: Judy’s willingness to stand up for the weak comes to the fore when she offers to find Otterton against Bogo’s wishes.

ARCS: Detective mystery, Judy’s growth.

We get two events of major importance in this sequence.

I’m a fan of the theory that Act 1 comes to an end when two things happen: the Inciting Incident and the Key Event. The Inciting Incident is the action that completely changes the protagonist’s forward direction. If not for the Otterton case, Judy would have just continued forward battling Bogo to be recognized as a legitimate police officer. When Judy jumps at the chance to solve the Otterton case, her life suddenly veers into the who-done-it-mystery-plot thread.

That gets the external journey going, but the theory of the Key Event states that the protagonist has to buy in to the effect of the inciting incident. They have to put skin in the game, make the outcome personal. This happens when Bogo hands Judy a ticking clock (48 hours to solve the case or resign) and Judy agrees to the deal. Now she’s in it with a personal stake in the outcome. End Act 1.

ACT 2

P. 38–39: Case File

The single clue from the case file forces Judy to have to work with Nick.

CALLBACK: “Get your pawpsicle.” Judy notices the “pawpsicle” Emmitt is eating resembles the kind Nick sold to the lemmings. That leads her to notice Nick’s tail leaving the scene.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 39–42: Nick’s Conscription

Judy teams with Nick to solve the case. She bests Nick at his own con game. Nick knows where Otterton went, so the mystery story begins to move.

PAYOFF: Her ability to match Nick’s cunning was set up by her prior experiences as a child and at the police academy.

SET-UP: She agrees to give the recording to Nick in return for his help. This will be paid back at the news conference.

SET-UP: Judy uses Nick’s catch-phrase against him, which she will also use at the end of the climax against Mayor Bellwether.

SET-UP: The recording carrot pen will be important in both the bridge scene and the final climax.

ARCS: Detective mystery, relationship.

P. 42–46: Naturalist Resort

Some comedy to lighten the mood while gaining a clue. Judy’s faces an uncomfortable situation to gain a clue. Judy retains the recording to force Nick to continue helping her.

ARCS: Detective mystery, relationship.

P. 46–50: DMV

Another comedy scene, with another clue.

SET-UP: The super slow animals of the DMV provide the final speeder villain at the end of the film.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 50–54: Limousine Service

Another clue about Otterton. Nick panics at his recognition about who owns the car, which begins to remove his cool veneer.

PAYOFF: Judy’s ability to match Nick’s cunning proves fruitful when she pretends to give up the recording pen, then uses it as an excuse to keep Nick on the hook.

SET-UP: Claw marks in the car presage something bad. Initially, makes it appear that Otterton was attacked.

ARCS: Detective mystery, Nick’s growth.

P. 54–58: Mr. Big

Tension increase as Judy and Nick are taken to the local crime boss.

PAYOFF: Judy’s heroism in saving the lady shrew in Little Rodentia saves her and Nick’s lives. It impresses Mr. Big enough that he’s willing to help.

SET-UP: Nick’s fraud against Mr. Big sets up the relationship which will be important in interrogating Duke Weaselton later.

PAYOFF: Mr. Big reveals that Otterton was not attacked, but did the attacking. This changes the perspective on the problem.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 58–63: Rain Forest- Part 1

Manchas’ reversion ratchets up the tension. We now personally witness the change to savage beast and see what dangers it brings.

SET-UP: Clawhauser showing off the JibJab-style Gazelle app makes this bit of comedy available later when he discovers Bogo playing with the same app.

SET-UP: Judy’s rescue of Nick begins his change of heart.

ARCS: Detective mystery, Nick’s growth, relationship.

P. 63–65: Rain Forest — Part 2

Bogo demands Judy’s early resignation, which increases the tension.

PAYOFF and SET-UP: Nick stands up to Bogo in Judy’s behalf as a result of saving his life. This is a major change in Nick’s arc.

ARCS: Relationship, Nick’s growth.

P. 65–69: Rain Forest — Part 3

Nick’s flashback helps us understand what motivates him. The realization about the traffic cams picks up the pace again.

SETUP: Nick was muzzled as a child. This will haunt him again at the news conference.

CALLBACK: Nick is shoved to the floor and held down by bullies, just as Judy was.

CALLBACK: Bellwether promised Judy had a friend in city hall. Judy calls in the favor.

ARCS: Relationship, Nick’s growth, detective mystery.

P. 69–73: Bellwether at City Hall

We get the first hint that Judy would like to invite Nick to become a good guy, but Nick isn’t ready yet. We get the next lead to follow, but turns into another false lead when Judy decides the phrase “night howlers” refers to the wolves who capture Manchas.

SET-UP: We see more evidence that Bellwether feels unappreciated. (Coffee mug, pet names)

SET-UP: Judy’s first offer to Nick to become a police officer. This will be accepted later at the news conference.

ARCS: Detective mystery, relationship, Nick’s growth.

P. 73–79: The Asylum

Judy and Nick find the missing mammals, thus solving the main detective mystery. However, this turns out to be a false resolution.

SET-UP/PAYOFF: Clawhauser’s discovery of Bogo playing the Gazelle app reveals a vulnerable side to Bogo. This allows him up to show his caring side when Judy decides to resign after the news conference.

SET-UP/PAYOFF: The choice to enter the asylum through the drainage pipe sets up their escape through the toilet and into the river.

PAYOFF: Judy saves Nick from discovery by howling, perhaps repaying him for his support against Bogo. Also, this again plays into her quick-thinking personality, as does using the toilet/plumbing to escape.

SET-UP: The doctor’s claim that biology must contribute to the predator problem.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 79–84: The News Conference

Judy stands before the press and inadvertently reveals her own prejudices. Her relationship with Nick is seriously damaged.

CALLBACK/SET-UP: Judy invites Nick to change his life by offering him the application for the police academy. This sets him up to believe the world can see him as something other than a shifty fox, but it will be short-lived.

PAYOFF: Judy offers Nick the recording carrot pen to fill out the application. By implication, she releases Nick from his obligation to help her further. It’s a trust-building action and shows that Judy fulfills her promises.

SET-UP: Nick now has possession of the recording pen, which he will use during the apology scene under the bridge.

CALLBACK: Judy recalls her childhood play and the doctor’s words at the asylum to explain the cause of the predator reversions.

PAYOFF: Judy’s unconscious prejudices finally become public in a big way.

PAYOFF: Nick’s budding trust in Judy and belief in a positive future is suddenly torn asunder. He really can’t amount anything but a shifty fox (or so he thinks).

CALLBACK: Nick’s childhood trauma, particularly being muzzled, comes vividly back to mind when he sees the pictures of other muzzled animals.

PAYOFF: Nick confronts Judy about the can of fox repellant she always carries.

ARCS: Relationship, Judy’s growth, Nick’s growth.

P. 85–86: Social tensions increase

Montage sequence: Protests and conflict. Small acts of distrust (mother rabbit pulls her child closer when a tiger sits down next to them). A media star pleads for tolerance. Judy watches the Ottertons, helplessly.

SET-UP: This prepares for Judy to reach the bottom of her deconstruction.

ARCS: Judy’s growth.

P. 86–88: Meeting and resignation

Judy’s all-is-lost moment. She has reached the bottom of her deconstruction.

PAYOFF: Chief Bogo is revealed to have a heart, able to act as a mentor, but it’s too late.

ARCS: Judy’s growth.

ACT 3

P. 88–92: Back on the Family Farm

Judy has time to reflect on her idealism and how she failed to live up it. Her parents’ partnership with Gideon raises her hopes.

PAYOFF: Gideon’s reformation and her parents’ partnership with him show her faith in people is correct, it just takes longer to come about.

CALLBACK: Judy discovers a new meaning to the term “night howlers.”

ARCS: Judy’s growth, detective mystery.

P. 92–93: Under the Bridge

Judy’s tearful reunion with Nick shows that she realizes her mistakes, that she harbors prejudices she didn’t want to admit. Nick’s willingness to forgive demonstrates how he has changed.

CALLBACK: Judy refers to herself as a “dumb bunny,” a term Nick used when his hustler nature was revealed.

PAYOFF/SET-UP: Nick uses the recording carrot pen to blackmail Judy (in jest). He retains the carrot pen, which will be key to the resolution during the climax.

CALLBACK: Nick says Judy can have the recording pen back in 48 hours, the original length of time Chief Bogo gave Judy to solve the missing mammals case.

SET-UP: On the drive to find Duke Weaselton, Nick discovers a batch of blueberries. This is the safety mechanism that saves him from being reverted when darted by Bellwether in the climax scene.

ARCS: Relationship, Judy’s growth, Nick’s growth, detective mystery.

P. 93–95: The Final Clue

The encounters with Duke and Mr. Big produce the final lead.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 95–101: The Drug Lab

The escape attempt with the drug lab ups the tension. The loss of the evidence raises the stakes again momentarily until Nick reveals he still has the dart gun.

PAYOFF: Judy’s ability to kick the ram onto the rail switch was set up back in the police academy (her fight with the rhino).

CALLBACKS: The photos of Manchas and Otterton, along with Doug’s admission that he shot Otterton, allow Judy to put the entire crime process together. She now understands how it all works.

ARCS: Detective mystery.

P. 101–105: Climax

Mayor Bellwether’s appearance reveals her as the villain. Judy’s injury increases the tension. Nick’s apparent reversion heightens the tension further and Judy’s apparent death and blood-cuddling scream takes the story to its height.

CALLBACK: Bellwether chides Judy for leaving her farm life.

CALLBACK: Bellwether uses Judy’s own words from the news conference against her.

CALLBACK: Bellwether cites a made-up headline referencing the chance she gave Judy to become a media hero.

CALLBACK: Judy is wounded by the elephant tusk while running. As a wounded victim, she appears to be at Bellwether’s mercy, but she gets Bellwether’s confession. This mirrors her altercation with Gideon as a child.

CALLBACK: Judy re-enacts her childhood play death scene after Nick apparently kills her.

CALLBACK: Judy uses Nick’s phrase (“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart”) to cap her victory over Bellwether.

PAYOFF: Judy produces the carrot recording pen that captured Bellwether’s confession.

PAYOFF: The blueberries in the dart gun were available in the family truck Judy drove to Zootopia in.

P. 105–109: Denouement

Judy reveals how she has grown. Her idealism has changed to a deeper understanding about individual differences. Yet, her idealism still holds because Nick has reformed and become a police officer.

CALLBACK: Chief Bogo assigns Judy and Nick to parking duty as a prank.

CALLBACK: One final comedic moment when the street speeder turns out to be Flash the sloth.

End.