Zootopia Or The Importance Of The Second Character

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Zootopia provides us an animated lesson about classic cinema. The film is full of references to the history of Hollywood, and the films script is a great example model for teaching new writers. The story shows that the magic can only emerge when the whole environment and the relationship between the parts of that world are working in harmony.

One of the first lessons the film teaches us is to never be tied to anything in the story. Zootopia shows us that even years into the production, it is not too late to change directions when it serves the purpose of a good story. The director Rich Moore 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.

The protagonist is only one among a lot of others point that you have to considerate if you want to draw a good story. As much as it may seem, characters are not people; through them we show different aspects of the human being nature. Every story is about something concrete and clear 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 views, and to face in one way or another, his fears. A second character, based in some aspects of the archetype of the trickster, is something that the audience always love, especially when you main character is a bluestocking cute bunny. That means contrast, and contrast gives colour and rhythm, and guaranties the funny opposition and exciting relationship.

Have a look to Han Solo, Flynn Rider (Tangled), or Jack Sparrow just to name a few. Disney has a long background with this kind of characters. Baloo, the Tramp, Genie, Thomas O’Malley… the list goes on and on. It is 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 master to notice how the adult public enjoy recognizing some of the most classic films ever inside of Zootopia. However, it is not needed neither the audience knows every resource used to make a film in order that the trick works.

Personally, I had a deep feeling 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 that Disney movies which filled my childhood, but for the old trickster fox recycled with pants and tie but still the same. Sort of Jack Sparrow played by Paul Newman, a sweet trickster who, according with the moral of the times, finished as a policeman, so sad, after the prerequisite slice of psychoanalysis about his problems with the society, base in his childhood traumas.

Nick Wilde looks like Robin Hood as two drops of water. 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, bad rules, of course. To be out 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 manners. You have to. He is adorable, a little cheater, a bit liar, but adorable. He always is going to have a peculiar style, a swing walking, and a barely playboy touch. He gives you the perfume of the freedom, but, overall, he will show you eventually the value of the truly things, friendship, love, loyalty…. This kind of clean stuff. Please, do not be confused here. That is not a trickster that is a Disney one.

Disney tradition of main second character trickster 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, 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 could no one else make it. This political is 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 not pretty good or elegant, but he had moral problems with a character, who had no sense of decency or honor. 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 seeing the transformation of Reynard into Robin Hood. Ken Anderson, a Disney legend, was who find up the idea. After all, Robin is the perfect good boy out 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 night of the ancient time of the European fairy tales. One of the oldest reference 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 this 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.

Jacquemart Gielée: Renart le nouvel
Handschrift, um 1290/1300

circa 1460
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.

Nick Wilde is that sort of secondary character which the audience loves as much as the protagonist, sometimes even more. It is the case of Jack Sparrow, for instance, who, I promise you, is not the protagonist of the story. However, according with the audience, it is, definitely, the Main character of it.

Keith Ward, 1945

Disney, 1973

Zootopia is a detective’s story. Hollywood knows everything about that gender 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, create is 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 Virgilio. 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 is all about creation.

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