Read This Before You Watch “Zootopia”

Welcome back to another week of our media studies series on “The Hero’s Quest.” Big thanks to all of you who sent me your responses to our discussion questions about “The Hunger Games” last week. I’m so pleased to see how you were able to connect the classic elements of the narrative arc in a hero’s journey with what Katniss encounters in the film. Across the board, you nailed!

So, now that we all feel confident that you know recognize and name all the steps in a classic hero’s quest, we’re ready face some new challenges this week as we watch the recent Disney film “Zootopia” (2016). At first glance this movie doesn’t necessarily present itself as being a hero’s quest. It seems more like a kid’s version of your typical cop buddy picture, but with animated talking animals instead. If you look at the movie poster, you can already tell the movie will be about how these partners can unite to fight crime across divisions of gender and race (or species, in this case though movie makes the parallels obvious).

Again, this might not immediately seem like it would be a hero’s quest. However, cop movies, like all the different types of detective stories, tend to follow the same narrative pattern we learned to recognize last week, with variations on the same characteristic steps in the hero’s journey.

Not surprisingly, the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler emphasizes the heroic aspects of the detective in his famous essay about the genre, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950). Chandler writes, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Sounds like the classic hero, doesn’t it?

The Call to Adventure appears at the start of the detective’s case, when a dead body has been found, or someone has been kidnapped, or piece of valuable art has been stolen or whatever, and the quest is about “whodunit.” There’s often an Initial Refusal before the hero accepts the case or realizes what’s at stake and sets off of their Journey into the Unknown, but once the narrative gets under way it follows most of the same patterns we’ve seen before. Watch for all those classic elements and see if you can identify them – the talisman, the friends and helpers, the trials and tribulations that must be overcome, the “all seems lost” moment, the final test of worthiness, and the ultimate boon (which is usually the surprising solution to the case). Those are all here.

As before, with the detective that same endless cycle of the hero’s quest will start over from the beginning when the next case comes along.

Now, with all that said, there is one key difference that we really want to pay attention to this week. You’ll notice how in detective stories the figure of the Mentor is often not exactly what we’ve seen before. Instead of a clear Mentor with a teacher/guide relationship to the hero, sometimes we find the detective has a sidekick or partner who possesses special knowledge of the underworld. Because of that character’s special ability to move through the dangerous areas where the detective must travel (literally or figuratively), this Mentor/Sidekick often appears at first like a criminal or shady character. Remember how last week I mentioned that among the hero’s friends and helpers, there can be a rogue-like character who can’t quite be trusted, or who initially seems like a scoundrel but who eventually turns out to be a loyal friend. We definitely see all of that in “Zootopia” with the character of Nick Wilde.

Enjoy the movie! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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