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Zootopia, and apologies

Zootopia, and apologies published on

Zootopia, in my opinion, is possibly the most nearly perfect animated move ever made. Simply put, in every single aspect it scores top marks.  The look, the scope, the vista. The digital know-how to give an aspect as complex and intricate as if a real camera had filmed a real crowd in a real city. The animator’s craft so perfect and subtle and nuanced that if more fair to call it not character animation but animated characters acting. The flawless control of pacing. The beautiful, melodic, urban multicultural music score. And not least the writing .

The script of Zootopia is a masterpiece, and its writers – Jared Bush, Phil Johnston – deserve to be immensely proud.

I could talk for a long time about the significance of Zootopia as arguably the first ever big-budget movie in the modern anthropomorphic style: animal characters who take ‘human’ roles but whose animality is an integral part of the premise. And there may come a time when I do. I would enthuse at length about the shrewd sequence of logical cause and effect that propels the story, the many witty devices, the deftly-crafted humour and the richness of what I call “the emotional symphony”.

An apology must follow
Zootopia – Judy Hopps and Gideon Grey

But for brevity, I’ll stick to one single aspect: Apology. Because of all the qualities of the writing that stand out, the place of apology in the storytelling of Zootopia bears a maturity rare in this category of family-targeted movies.

Yes, the vibe’s about holding on tight to your dream. But what is neatly slotted into the screenplay’s background is a precious lesson in life – how to make good on your mistakes. How broken things – and broken people – can be fixed.

To me, what nailed it were the two episodes with Gideon Grey, the boy fox who was (rabbit) Judy Hopps’ childhood bully. He terrorized her, beat her and walked away unpunished. Fast forward many years. Hopps stays true to her dream and enlists in the police academy, becomes the star graduate officer and sets out as a trailblazer for rabbitkind as Zootopia’s first bunny cop. She expects to treat others fairly and to be treated fairly, regardless of species. But while she has her successes, she also has a major public screw-up, brings what she sees as disgrace to her uniform and shatters her own dreams of making the world a better place.  She tried, she failed, people got hurt, and she withdrew to the ambitionless safety of her small-town family home base.

Enter the grown-up Gideon Grey. Bigger and hungrier than ever. Shock and panic, then relief. The brain-dead bully really has grown up, not just physically but also emotionally  and, dare I say, spiritually. No, he did not need to be beaten up to teach him a lesson. There was no place for retribution, score-settling nor any other comic book ‘justice’. This simple soul had found his own peace. Most importantly, he (alone or with counselling) had come to his own insight, had recognised his fault and attended to it. In so doing, he had found peace, and thereafter his every step upon the earth propagated this peace to others.

This is an astonishingly rare piece of storytelling, and on experiencing it my heart lifted and sang. The ‘villain’ took it upon himself to find his own insight, the insight that could never be forced into him with a fist. Guided by his insight, he explained to Judy Hopps his past screwed-up-ness, frankly apologized and… well, that was that.

It was sincere. Hopps was disarmed by the apology, and so was I, because quite plainly in the recent years Grey had been more than corrected. He had been healed.

What makes Zootopia a masterpiece of writing is what happens next. Grey unwittingly points Hopps to a clue that can help her get back on the trail of her major case, so off she races to the city. But subtly, what Grey has given her as well, in his own salt-of-the-earth manner, is the object lesson that you can make good on your mistakes. He is spiritual healing personified. Even when the mistakes are ones for which other people have paid your price.

And it’s then you start to realize that Hopps is a flawed character, just as was Grey. As a child at the movie’s outset, her uncalled-for public taunt of the bully at the school concert was an act of hurt that was no less excusable than his standover attack on her. And her Zootopia Police Department press conference blunder could be laid on the doorstep of her ingrained, bucolic prejudice. Just under her surface, under her gently smiling tolerance courses racism in the antithesis of the values she claims to hold so high. Not that she ever would have recognized it as such, even when told.

Grey was paradoxically ahead of Hops in the wisdom stakes. He taught her that insight heals, and with this reflection, she healed herself, her severed friendship with Nick Wilde, the damage to her mishandled case and the people of the city. And then, in the natural course of these things, adventurous crime fighting ensues, and justice is ultimately delivered.

Wrapping up, Hopps’ finishing speech to the next generation of police college graduates evidences her new moral maturity as it recaps the above and delivers her lesson on sound, workable values in a complex world. Oh, I do so sincerely hope that storytelling and scriptwriting of this calibre will be the future benchmark for all such motion pictures.

What I strive for, at least in the more serious periods of the Doc Rat stories, is a lesson in fixing wrongs, in making amends, and in healing. I try to manifest the notion that true reconciliation heals both parties, and likewise the healing of both parties is a precondition to reconciliation.

In the ‘Jennerverse’ world of Doc Rat, I have often set apologies formally in the rabbit ceremony of charonta-lamba. But the full formal ritual is not always needed. The skill can be applied at any time of making things right again. Rabbits do it on the hop, so to speak. The knowledge of the principles is the important thing – what it means and what it takes.

Apologies have the power to create peace.

I couldn’t have put it any better than the way in which it was dramatized in the story of Zootopia. I take my hat off to Messrs Bush, Johnston and the story writing team. Well done indeed.