[MINOR SPOILERS BUT COME ON, SERIOUSLY, NOT REALLY]
So the big question after Zootopia ends–well, one of the big questions–is “what kind of ‘partners’ are Nick and Judy now?” People will point to the fox’s “you know you love me” and Judy’s response and say, “They love each other! Totally romantic!” Thing is, in English anyway*, “love” is also cool between good friends who have been through a lot together. And Nick is just the kind of guy who would say, “You know you love me” in that non-romantic way.
(*I’ve been told that some translations have chosen a more romantic form of “love” for that sentence in other languages. From my friends who work in translation, I know that translators often aren’t given specific direction and have to make their own guesses from the context of the work–which, as we will see here, could go either way. So while the translations could have been directed by the studio, they could also have been just the best guess of one person who wasn’t otherwise involved in the story.)
You might think, given my penchant for writing romantic stories, that I would argue for the romantic partner sense. Or, given my penchant for writing gay foxes, that I would argue for friendship because Nick is totally gay. Before I go on from here, I want to say that whatever your headcanon is, that’s cool. I’m just going to explain mine, and how I got there, with reference to the story and the meta-story and my own preferences in storytelling.
This movie actually made me think about friendship vs. romance in animated movies. Disney has leaned heavily toward the romance side (Beauty and the Beast being the classic example). Pixar, on the other hand, has been much more friendship-based (and then there are films like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, which like Disney’s The Lion King are family-based to the extent that relationships are important to those movies). What I mean by “romance-based” and “friendship-based” is movies in which the lead characters’ relationship is a central focus of the movie.
Me, personally, I relate more strongly to friendship-based movies. Disney’s The Fox and the Hound hits me harder than any of their romances. Likewise Toy Story and its sequels, Up and Ratatouille, etc. And I was wondering why that was. I think there are two reasons.
First of all, a typical romance–a really affecting one–is not really suited to an animated movie. It focuses on the two leads learning about each other, learning how they fit into each other’s lives, finding out their secrets, and realizing that they are each more important to the other than anything else, that they would be willing to sacrifice any other part of their lives for that relationship. That doesn’t play too well with kids (Beauty and the Beast is a truer romance, and even in that one the “getting to know you” part is montaged; Lady and the Tramp might be the other best example of a successful Disney romance). Frankly, if you’re not someone already disposed to want a romantic story, it doesn’t play that well with adults either. Romances these days most often take the form of romantic comedies, where people bumble about and laugh at themselves and overcome some silly misunderstanding to realize that the person they laid their eyes on in act 1 is the one they’re supposed to spend the rest of their lives with. Even in Groundhog Day, one of the more successful romances I’ve seen many times, there’s no real moment where Phil sees something in Rita that makes him want to go out with her. She’s just the woman he knows best, and he decides to make himself a better person so she’ll fall in love with him. But why is he in love with her? Because…she’s there.
So it’s really hard to do a romance well, especially in an animated movie where you need to have an action scene or a song every ten minutes so the kids don’t get bored. That’s reason one**.
(**I should also add that I may be biased against romances because so many of them are straight. I don’t think that’s the case; I’ve seen bad gay romances that left me cold as well. But it bears mentioning.)
Friendship-based movies have a lot of those same elements, minus the lifetime commitment part. And here Hollywood is on firmer ground. The story of two mismatched people learning to be friends is one we’ve all seen and loved some variation of. Midnight Run. 48 Hours (possibly one of the truest precursors to Zootopia). Heck, one of the major subplots of Star Wars is the friendship between Luke and Han–tell me you don’t get a little emotional when Han swoops in to save Luke during the Death Star run. Even in this century: The Avengers is all about friendships and trust. Mad Max: Fury Road likewise.
So reason two, and I think the stronger reason for me, is that movies that teach us how to reach out and be friends are more broadly applicable to our lives. I mean, you might have three or four serious romantic relationships in your life, on average (web searches turn up wildly varying results, but this seems to be the most common one). But you can find a good friend anywhere, at any time, and that includes your romantic partner as well. The sacrifices friends make for each other aren’t motivated by sex or family or any obligation other than the trust they’ve put in each other, and a friend can be literally anyone.
That bond between two friends is all the more special because they have no other reason to be together. They’re not the prince and princess; they’re not the only two foxes in Sherwood Forest; they’re just a couple people who learned they can trust and rely on each other. That’s pretty cool in my book. I’d also like to see more examples of friendships between men and women (or male foxes and female rabbits) that don’t veer into romance, if only to provide examples in pop culture for those kind of friendships. EVERY TIME A MALE AND FEMALE CHARACTER GET CLOSE, THEY DON’T HAVE TO KISS.
The story of Zootopia feels more like “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” to me. There’s no room for the kind of sharing that a romance would require, and any romance wouldn’t be earned by the story. That’s not to say that you can’t imagine them getting closer after the movie ends, maybe dating, maybe getting married (one of my friends said “I’d like to see them try dating and have it not work out, but they remain friends”). For me, though, I like the idea that the friendship is enough for both of them, that they don’t need romance from each other too.
Plus, I want to see a story where each of them has problems with the person the other one is dating***.
(*** This is not to say that I’m not interested in how Zootopia views interspecies romance. It appears to be okay for same-sex couples (the Oryx-Antlersons, and yes, they are different species with the same hyphenated last name; married is about 100x more likely than any convoluted permutation of “step-brothers who for some reason kept their parents’ hyphenated last names and also for some reason live together as adults”), probably because they aren’t expected to have kids/cubs/kits/fawns anyway. But Nick and Judy have already handled species prejudice. They don’t have to tackle every problem in Zootopia. Besides, if Judy’s going to date a fox, Finnick is more her size...)