Zootopia is a unique and daring take on what is usually a typical and consistent alignment of Throughlines. Most animated films place the Main Character Throughline in Situation, the Influence Character Throughline in Fixed Attitude, the Overall Story Throughline in Activity, and the Relationship Story Throughline in Manipulation, or Way of Thinking.
Zootopia did not.
In fact, this is such a consistent alignment in almost every Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar film that during the recording of this week’s Narrative First Podcast I had trouble deciphering where the Main Character Throughline landed for Zootopia. I had expected Situation as was the custom and seemed appropriate for the first bunny rabbit to be a cop. But Hopps clearly dealt with her own subconscious racist attitudes towards the end of film which would have her in Fixed Attitude.
Turns out she was somewhere in-between.
Thanks to listener Mark Vander Vinne of Vander Vinne Studios, I finally saw why the film worked for so many people and what I was missing. Mark suggested the alignment you will find below, one that in retrospect seems so blatantly obvious.
The conflict in Hopps’ personal Throughline doesn’t stem solely from her fixed Situation—everyone is dealing with a problematic situation in some sort of fashion or another. Instead, it is her Activities, her attempts at Doing something that no other rabbit has done before that is the source of her difficulties and something that is unique to her, and her alone. That is the definition of a Main Character Throughline.
This puts Nick the Fox in Manipulation and focuses his Concern on Playing a Role; in other words, playing the hand that he has been dealt. *”Everyone comes to Zootopia, thinking they could be anything they want. But you can’t. You can only be what you are. Sly fox. Dumb bunny.” This Way of Thinking is just the kind of thing that challenges Hopps and her attempts at making a difference in the world. Nick has achieved some level of success with this particularly bleak viewpoint of the world…perhaps she should too.
At this, the “personality” level of the dramatic structure, Zootopia shares a similar narrative drive to last week’s Throughline Thursday, Beasts of No Nation. A Main Character struggling with Activities who is challenged to grow because of the subtle and not-so-subtle Manipulations of an Influence Character.
But the similarities end there, for rather than explore the external fixed state of affairs that Beasts of No Nation does, Zootopia examines the deep-seeded Fixed Attitude, or racism, inherent within the instincts of an animal. These Impulsive Responses—the impulse to pull a child close on a bus, or carry “Fox-spray” wherever you go—are the sources of conflict in the Overall Story Throughline.
This is why the film feels so fresh and so new. Toy Story 2, Kung Fu Panda, Cars, and How To Train Your Dragon all share the same similar thematic structure of Main Character in Situation and Overall Story in Activity. Even The Incredibles, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc. play it reasonably safe by putting the Overall Story in Manipulation. None of them dare to put the Overall Story in Fixed Attitude.
The arrangement of Throughlines determine the personality or Genre of the narrative being explored. These Patterns of Conflict have the largest impact on how a story will feel to an audience. That is why so many people find Zootopia fresh and exciting.
Placing the Overall Story in Fixed Attitude naturally encourages the Relationship Story Throughline into Situation which again feels perfect for the story we were presented. A fox and a rabbit forced into working with one another. Both have reasons for distrusting the other because of who they are externally, who they are on the outside. Overcoming that distrust rests at the heart of their relationship.
While Zootopia still has an issue with its broken Story Limit, the Throughlines come across strong and purposeful. A bold choice to explore an Overall Story in Fixed Attitude, particularly within the context of an animated film built for a Western audience. It is something you would only expect to find in an Eastern animated film, like When Marnie Was There. Hopefully this is a sign of greater and more imaginative storytelling to come.