Monday, February 20, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 2: Set Up the Villain Fake-Out

What’s interesting about Zootopia is that Hopps and Nick never really set out to figure out who the villain is. At first the mystery is set up as “Where have all these predators disappeared to?” and then as “Why are they going savage?” The question is never really asked “Who’s behind this?”, until they suddenly realize that it’s Bellwether in the middle of an action sequence. This is fine. Not every mystery needs every element of the genre.

This eases the burden on the writers because they don’t have to create an array of suspects, all of whom would have to have logical motivation. They only need to set up means, motive and opportunity for one person, and the audience isn’t likely to notice, because we’re never invited to suspect everyone.

As I watched the movie, I didn’t figure out who the villain was until the heroes figured it out, which is ideal. As with all the best villain-reveals, I was able to instantly flip my perspective and re-evaluate everything I’d seen, seeing how everything the villain had done, none of which seemed villainous at the time, could easily take on a sinister interpretation. Let’s go back and look at each of her previous appearances.

We first meet her, she gives Mayor Lionheart the badge to give to Hopps and gets shoved aside.
  • How it reads at the time: This is an amusing side character, and we’ll probably never see her again.
  • What we see in retrospect: We see her humiliation and anger.
She helps Hopps get unfired and get assigned to the disappearance case.
  • How it reads at the time: We like Bellwether for sticking up for her fellow underdog.
  • What we see in retrospect: She wants the case to go forward to serve her sinister plan.
She helps Hopps track the car, and talks more about her mistreatment by the mayor.
  • How it reads at the time: We’re getting more of a sense of her grievance at this point, but it still just seems like an interesting character note. If anything, it makes us wonder if Lionhart is going to be the villain.
  • What we see in retrospect: She’s leading them to where the mayor has the predators caged up.
She encourages Hopps at press conference.
  • How it reads at the time: She innocently puts Hopps forward and doesn’t realize what Hopps will do.
  • What we see in retrospect: She hopes Hopps will blame all predators, and she’s very happy afterwards.
She discourages Hopps from quitting.
  • How it reads at the time: We like her. In fact we side with her over our hero.
  • What we see in retrospect: Oddly enough, our reading of this scene doesn’t change. Bellwether genuinely likes Hopps, and really wants to help her. Prey must stick together, after all.
So by the time we get to the climactic scene, we’ve seen everything we need to see. We've seen that she has all the motivation she needs to be the villain, even though it didn’t seem villainous to us at the time, and we’ve seen her engage in villainous behavior even though it seemed positive at the time.

Next time, we’ll look at another element that sets up the finale.

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