Zootopia is a classic lesson in cinema. Full of reference to the history of Hollywood, its script technically perfect, it’s a good model for teaching new writers how the magic can only emerge when the whole set and the relationship between the parts is working in harmony. A story is not the result of the addition of his individual parts, but a lot more.
Nick Wilde, Disney, 2016.
In cinema, like in the rest of the creative world, there are trends; some kind of structures or characters which are fashionable. The audience decides. It is not a rule, it’s a trend. But, cinema loves what works, because that’s what it’s all about, the box office. And now, there is a particular second main character who seduces the public with his tricky charm, the Disney sweetened version of the trickster.
One of the directors, Rich Moore, (the other being Byron Howard,) explained that they eventually made the decision to switch the narrative focus from Nick Wilde to Judy Hopps.
About two-thirds of the way through production, we changed the story to Judy’s story, because Nick, being kind of a cynical character, he didn’t like the city of Zootopia. He was kind of oppressed by the city of Zootopia. And in our movies, we want the audience to like the world, not dislike the world. And it was very confusing with our main character as someone who didn’t like the city, how do we feel about this world? So we said, let’s just try, as an experiment, making Judy the main character — since she’s an optimist, she sees the best in everything — let’s try making it her story and see what happens.
Beyond this kind of spontaneous vision of the modern film process, I would like to have a close look with you at this eternal –never disappointing- second character cliché of the trickster, now, definitively remastered by Disney.
The protagonist is only one among a lot of other key points to be considered if you want to paint a good story. As much as it may seem, characters are not people; through them, we show different aspects of human nature. Every story is about a specific conflict and you are going to build a little group of different characters in order to show diverse features of the same problem. The protagonist needs a companion or companions, who allow him to express his points of view, and to face, in one way or another, his fears. A second character, based on some aspects of the archetype of the trickster, is something that the audience always love, especially when your main character is a smartie-pants cute bunny. That means contrast, and contrast gives colour and rhythm, guarantees the funny opposition and exciting relationship.
Have a look at Han Solo, Flynn Rider (Tangled), or Jack Sparrow just to name a few. Disney has a strong background in this kind of characters. Baloo, The tramp, Genie, Thomas O’Mally… the list could be long. It’s well known, Disney’s habit to feed his stories and characters with his own precedent works. It is not a particular Disney religion; Hollywood feeds on itself and the audience loves when it does. In fact, it is not necessary to have a Masters to notice how the adult public enjoys recognizing some of the most classic films ever inside of Zootopia. However, it is not needed either the audience knows every resource used to make a film in order that the trick works.
Personally, I had a deep feeling of deja vu seeing Zootopia. I could not avoid the memories of the old Robin Hood film. Not only because, in this animal world without humans, the animals play our roles like in all the Disney movies that filled my childhood, but for the old trickster fox recycled with pants and tie, but still the same. Sort of Jack Sparrow played with the classic Paul Newman elegance, a sweet trickster more in accordance with to Disney animation standards, who, agreeing with the moral of our times, finished as a policeman; so sad after the pre-requisite slice of psychoanalysis of his societal problems, based in his childhood traumas.
Nick Wilde and Robin Hood are like two peas in a pod. And, like Robin, he is not actually the bad guy, and he is not “Wild-e” because he is a fox, but because he is outside of the rules, of course. To be outside of the rules is the essential requirement for being a trickster. However, the Disney trickster is a likable happy fellow always ready to make you smile, and it is impossible not love him and his style. You have to. He is adorable, a little cheater, a bit of a liar, but adorable. He always is going to have a peculiar style, a swing, and a light playboy touch. He gives you the perfume of freedom, but, overall, he will show you eventually the value of integral things, friendship, love, loyalty…. This kind of clean stuff. Please, do not be confused here. This is not an everyday trickster this is a Disney trickster.
The tradition of this kind of trickster version in Disney commenced long ago…All started with a mouse. Sorry, (it is a reflex), all started with a mouse fox. Actually with a one called Reynard the Fox, or the red Fox. It was long, long time ago.
Just after the Snow White success, Uncle Walt started to furiously buy the rights of whatever sort of story he thought could be good for cinema. Not only because he wanted to keep the future possibility to go ahead with it, also because he wanted to be sure that no one else could make it. These politics are very common in Hollywood productions companies. One of the stories that earlier fell into in his hands was Reynard the Fox. By 1937, Disney was already interested in making the story of Reynard, a red fox and an outlaw in the worst kind of way. Walt had moral problems with a character who had no sense of decency or honour. Reynard would have to wait until someone was able to find a way to make him suitable for Disney standards. Walt was thinking about Reynard for decades, but, unfortunately, he died without having to see the transformation of Reynard into Robin Hood. Ken Anderson, a Disney legend, was who came up with the idea. After all, Robin is the perfect good boy outside of the law. Larry Clemmons wrote the story for 1973 animated Disney film. A new legend was born.
But, who is Reynard the Fox?
Reynard is one of those magnificent characters whose origins are lost in the mists of time of the ancient European fairy tales. One of the oldest references is the French tale, Le Roman de Renart by Pierre de Saint-Cloud around 1170. This tale already sets the typical setting. Reynard has been summoned to the court of King Noble, or Leo, the lion, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim, the wolf. I am pretty sure that Disney knew him through the American version written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith, who in turn, probably knew the Ward Henry Morley version, who made a translation from William Caxton’s English in 1481 and published in 1889 as part of Early Prose Romances. Reynard is the main character of a literary cycle of allegorical French, Dutch, English, and German fables, an anthropomorphic red fox and, of course, a trickster figure. All these fables are filled with anthropomorphic animals of whatever kind and the whole Middle Ages are full of amazing manuscripts filled with wonderful illustrations of them.
It is fascinating to see these illuminated manuscripts with Reynard and his fellows more than one thousand years old already playing the same roles that we still use in comics or films today.
Handschrift, um 1290/1300
Source Book of Hours/ Livre d’heures/ Stundenbuch – Utrecht, Master of Catherine of Cleves, Lieven van Lathem (illuminators); Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum (MMW), Den Haag: Ms. 10 F 50, fol. 6r
In the medieval bestiary, you can read,
The History of Reynard the Fox edited by Henry Morley, LL.D. William Caxton’s English Translation of 1481 originally published as part of Early Prose Romances George Routledge and Sons London, 1889
Reynard the Fox was medieval Europe’s trickster figure, a nasty but charismatic character who was always in trouble but always able to talk his way out of any retribution. (…)In editing this edition in 1889, Morley modernized the spelling of words still in common use in his day but did not attempt to modernize the style of the text. The result is a readable text that has all the flavor of the original.
In 1945 an American version appeared, written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith Ward and it is not difficult to appreciate the influence of Ward drawings in the work or Anderson for Disney Robin Hood.
Keith Ward, 1945
Robin Hood Disney, 1973
Nick Wilde is that sort of secondary character who the audience love as much as the protagonist, sometimes even more. It’s the case of Jack Sparrow, for instance, who, I promise you, is not the protagonist of the story. However, according to the audience, he is, definitely, the Main character!
Zootopia is a detective’s story. Hollywood knows everything about that genre. The very first film detective appeared in 1909 during the silent era. It was French and it was a series as well. It was called Nick Cramer. Coincidence or homage? Who knows… does it matter?
But, one thing is crystal clear, to create is to re-invent. New writers are usually afraid of taking into consideration an old classic masterpiece and that is a rookie critical mistake. Mickey Mouse is anything but an Oswald evolution and if you want to know something about adventures all you have to do is to read Homer or Virgil. The interest of the story does not lie in the fact that nobody heard it before; but in your particular, personal, and unique view point of it. That is what creation is all about.
Paris, March 2016