Anyone who enjoys animated movies must have seen Flash the Sloth. He was given a lot of time in one of the trailers for Disney’s Zootopia. When I watched the full movie, I fully expected the audience to laugh at Flash, even though they had already seen him at least once or twice. Not only did they laugh, but I laughed again myself. He is a very successful character.
The first layer of the joke is that Flash works at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There is no bureaucracy more familiar to Americans than the DMV, which is infamous for having its customers wait in long lines that hardly seem to move. Having the office be staffed by sloths is simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple.
Flash is a character built for contrast. For his joke to work, the situation around him has to have an opposing energy. There has to be something moving fast. When the Fox, Nick Wilde, brings the rabbit police officer, Judy Hopps, into the DMV, she is in a great hurry. So having to deal with Flash’s slowness is agonizing for her. Contrast between characters is one of the essential tools of comedy. You might, for instance, have a character who is established as a germaphobe, and he he has to deal with someone who has a obvious cold. One is instantly at odds with the other, and the comedy can get moving quickly.
Flash is appealing because he is focused. He finishes his sentence regardless of how long it takes. The single minded character is admirable, because they seem assured and confident that they are doing what needs to be done. He appears calm, centered, and meditative. They are simple for the audience to understand, and can be built to fit the comedy. Nick is able to distract Flash with a joke, but it’s less a distraction than an extension of the gag by making things go even slower.
Flash also works the comedy of miscommunication in a unique way. Classic comedy double acts would sometimes have one person verbally confusing another person. Hopefully you are familiar with Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s on first?” routine. The exchange between Hopps and Flash is entirely spoken in medium close up shots. These are just two characters talking. But we can’t deny that Flash’s sloth nature is physical trait that influences his communication. His words are not funny, but they are delivered in a way that is funny, especially given the situation.