Continuing our explorations on the profound moments in Zootopia, let’s embark on a ride that marks the beginning of the many remarkable transformations that unfold through the final act. Fittingly, this happens midway through the film, for it deals with who we are today in the face of our past.
As we listen to Nick share his story on the gondola, we discover that he and Judy share, in many ways, a common past. A past where they both, in rather frightening incidents, bullied and attacked due to their species and their ambitions. In both cases, they were told that “this is the way things are, and this is who you are.”
We see that they are, in so many ways, alike. They started from a similar point and desire.
Yet, when they first meet, they are on vastly different ends of the spectrum in who they are and how they view the world. From such eerily similar incidents as children, they had wildly divergent outcomes.
As Nick describes to Judy how he came to be the fox he is today, he gives us the access to see what, and how, that happened.
The key here is in what Nick says: “I learned two things that day.”
Though he says “learns,” if we listen closely what he really shares are the decisions he made that day. In that moment in the muzzle, under duress, he made a raft of decisions about how things were in the world. About who he was, and his place in the world.
“You gotta be tough.” “No one cares.” “I will never fit in.” “You’ll never get to me.” “I will be independent.” “You can’t fight who people think you are.” “Don’t let people get close to you.” “When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.” “If people think I’m shifty and untrustworthy, I’ll show them, I’ll be the shiftiest fox ever….”
All possible decisions he might have made in that moment. All were decisions that made 100% sense with what he was experiencing in that moment. And they were not decisions in isolation, they played off decisions he’d already made previously, and they all fit within the framework of what he already “knew.” These are decisions that we would never fault an 8 year old for making.
Like all decisions we make, Nick put those into the future to guide him. His views, his actions, his behaviour, and even his experience of his life all become aligned with those decisions. “There’s no point in trying to be anything else,” he says with finality.
We have already seen Judy’s story. We have seen the outcome of the decisions she made when Gideon attacked her.
Therein lies the second, fundamental, key.
The reason for the divergent outcomes is that their respective incidents were not the deciding factor in their lives. The incidents were just a catalyst for Judy and Nick to make decisions, and those decisions that made the difference. Those decisions are what shaped their lives.
The amazing thing we get present to is this: it could have gone either way for them.
In that moment in their youth they easily could have become each other. Judy could have given up on her dream and lived a demur life. Nick could have instead become a determined and pursued a career as a public defender. They’re not “who they are” just because that’s how they were born. Quite the contrary, it makes their otherwise strong and seemingly ingrained personalities seem much more delicate. Much more mutable.
Zootopia beautifully reminds us that the past happened, yes. We all have a past. And we cannot ever change our pasts.
But, and this is a big but, we get to make the meaning for all those incidents in our past.
This isn’t a moment of blame, or shame. This is a moment of realization. We never need to be beholden to our decisions from our past. We can always choose to “learn” a new lesson.
We are not fixed objects, set in stone. We don’t need to carry any burdens from the past.
As they step off that gondola, that’s the journey Judy and Nick embark on. The rest of the film we see them transform their lives when they set aside what they’ve “learned” in the past. They take ownership of their decisions, and, crucially, they take ownership of the outcomes of those decisions. They give up blame. They create a clearing. From that clearing, they get to choose, newly and freely.
Judy and Nick show us that we all share so much in common. They are beautifully alike. We are beautifully alike. We all have incidents in our past. We’ve all inadvertently trapped ourselves in decisions we weren’t aware we were making. Even from the same beginnings, we can travel vastly different paths. Yet, these paths are never set. Transformation is possible.
In this world we are all but a few decisions away from each other. Together, we can help each other walk back through those times, through those decisions, and see if they still apply. We can keep the choices that empower us and those around us, and we can set aside those that don’t to allow space for us to create something greater.
Just like Judy and Nick.
For earlier parts in this series on Zootopia: