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‘Zootopia:’ Disney’s Latest and Greatest Animal Kingdom

One of Disney Feature Animation’s most energetic, funny and enjoyable animated features hits theatres worldwide.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is situated alongside their likewise named Orlando theme park. The hotel is adorned in African motifs, cultural artifacts and artwork; the restaurants have African names and offer African-influenced menus. The rooms are decorated likewise, in a variety of warm earth tones (even the toilet paper is beige). What looks like mosquito netting is affixed to the wall just above the beds, a bit of faux decor as if in anticipation of an imaginary mosquito attack.

The most African feature of the place however, is the variety of fauna just outside the window: giraffes, wildebeests, zebras and ostriches, casually wandering about. It’s the perfect venue to host a press event celebrating the upcoming premiere of Disney’s all-animal animated feature Zootopia. (If the Lodge had been built two decades earlier it would’ve been perfect for a Lion King press event as well.) Directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard, co-director Jared Bush, producer Clark Spencer, screenwriter Phil Johnston, and lead voice talents Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin are all on hand, ready to run the gauntlet of roundtable and one-on-one interviews.

Like the studio’s Robin Hood or Chicken Little, Zootopia is set in an anthropomorphic, human-free universe. Unlike those movies however, the film is built around the premise that these characters are animals, critters that have evolved beyond their savage prehistoric origins into a peaceable kingdom where former predator and prey live side by side.

To say much more would give away several intriguing and unexpected plot twists. Be very careful reading reviews or skip them altogether if you want to avoid spoilers; just take my word for it it’s one of Disney’s most energetic, funny and enjoyable animated features in a long time.

I can also tell you Zootopia is a buddy film with a lot of heart and emotional resonance. The buddies in question are con artist fox Nick Wilde and young policewoman Judy Hopps, an eager beaver of a bunny out to prove herself as the city’s first rabbit police officer. (The fact that she’s on the force to begin with is thanks to a mandated “mammal inclusion initiative” which some viewers are sure to see as the anthropomorphic equivalent of an affirmative action program.)

Zootopia hits all the standard story beats of any buddy film: mismatched characters reluctantly team up, gradually develop a grudging respect for each other, reveal their vulnerabilities and eventually become deeply, mutually supportive friends -- but it all happens so smoothly and naturally it never feels by the numbers or that it’s happening strictly because the story needs it to happen. As in Disney’s best films, the characters set the plot in motion which in turn affects and changes them -- the character arc that is the backbone of a good screenplay.

“The relationship between Nick and Hopps is emotionally strong. You do feel them change,” says Howard, sharing his storytelling philosophy. “That’s why I do buddy movies so often -- to watch the characters change each other and become more whole as a pair, which I think is really rewarding.”

“When Zootopia was still in the discussion phase,” Moore recalls, “John Lasseter asked me, ‘If you’re going to do an animal movie, how do you do it differently than it’s ever been done before?’” The answer: unlike your standard “funny animal” movie where all critters live together in peaceful harmony, the predator/prey dynamic is at the heart of Zootopia. Its creators pulled off the challenging balancing act of combining real-world animal behavior and the imaginary civilization they inhabit.

The creative team traveled to Kenya to see how real life animals, both the eaters and the eaten, lived side by side. “Most of the things in the animal world happen around a watering hole,” says co-director Bush. “All sorts of animals are there. The cape buffalo push out the gazelles, the elephants push out buffalo.”

“We found predator and prey intermingling all the time. You’d think the lions are over here and the deer over there, but they’re usually around the watering hole at the same time. They kind of get along -- until somebody needs to eat.”

“The fur is an amazing achievement,” boasts producer Spencer. “We pushed it tactilely. There are 64 species of animals in the film. Think about a polar bear next to a yak with dreadlocks, an arctic shrew that has a very kind of soft fur, even the wet oily fur of an otter. All of them are completely different in film. I think it was a great achievement bringing that to life so it’s not humans in animal suits. No, they’re animals, which comes not just from the fur but from their animal behavior as well.”

Spencer continues, “The research really helped us. [In the film] the elephant uses his trunk to scoop ice cream, when the weasel’s running his head always stays center even though his body is moving like so. Every animal moves differently. Hopps’ nose twitches just a few very specific moments in the film. [She also makes a frustrated rabbitty foot thump at one point.] All those details are critical to make it feel like it really is an animal world, so we don’t forget these are animals living in a modern world they created themselves.”

“We spent the first eight months just researching what the world would be like,” Bush adds. “Early on we decided the city would be divided into districts by habitat matching the animals that would live there. Once we figured out which animals belonged where, it really started singing.”

The team also learned there’s a ten to one ratio of prey to predator. “We thought that’s an interesting fact,” Howard muses. “If animals evolved and built this metropolis, did they really leave their mistrust of each other completely behind or does it still lurk under the surface somewhere?”

“We see all the animals living together in peace and harmony,” the director adds. “How did it get to a point where a lion and deer can live side by side when we know lions eat deer in real life? They evolved and came to a point of trusting each other. What if that social contract is broken and ignited the prey animals’ fear of predators -- what would happen to society?”

It takes a lot of backstory to create a world like that, challenging the filmmakers to pack it all in without slowing the story to a crawl. A good deal of Zootopia’s history was tossed out of the film early on. It instead begins with a school play featuring an adolescent Judy and a schoolmate acting out their ancestors’ savage relationship -- with Judy employing yards of red ribbon and a ketchup squirt bottle to demonstrate her own evisceration. (The moment also reveals Judy’s full-out enthusiasm in whatever she attempts, an example of efficient, streamlined storytelling: they’ve given us important backstory and established Judy’s personality at the same time.)

I ask Howard if there a moment in the film’s development where it all came together. “Yes, when we flipped the film’s protagonist a year and a half ago,” he replies. “We took what we had shot so far to Pixar to let a fresh audience take a look at it. We didn’t set them up at all, just asked them to watch and be blunt. [WALL-E director Andrew] Stanton said, ‘You’re introducing the film thru Nick’s eyes. He’s a cynic who doesn’t like the city, therefore I can’t root for the city; I want Nick to escape from the city rather than see it healed.’”

Stanton suggested a radical change. “Let’s take a chance just for a moment to see what happens if we flip the main characters and put the more idealistic Judy in the driver’s seat so the audience learns about Zootopia through her more optimistic eyes, then bring in Nick’s cynicism and challenge to her philosophy later.”

“That really did the trick,” notes Howard. “It was kind of a chiropractic adjustment: the pieces are there; you just have to kind of go snap! then everything starts to flow. Okay, we figured out the problem -- now we have to tell the crew things they’ve been working on for years are no longer in the movie. It was a big task for them to try something new; their eyes started to twitch…”

Zootopia doesn’t address a question audiences who pay attention to that sort of thing might ask: if it’s an all-mammal city, where are the reptiles? Where are the birds?

“Right now we’re just seeing the mammal continent,” says Bush, “but we also built out the world itself. There are other places we don’t go to. We always thought there’s probably a reptile continent somewhere, the birds are going to be somewhere different, but we had to focus it to mammals for this one. Also the different boroughs that you see? Right now we have five [Little Rodentia, Tundratown, Sahara Square, The Burrows and the Rainforest District], but we built out probably ten of them that we didn’t get to go to, like Outback Island and the nocturnal district. I loved Outback Island so, so much, to be able to take advantage of the Australian animals and all the marsupials.”

If the film is successful, Bush will undoubtedly have an opportunity to include the island in a sequel…Zootopia is chock full of Easter eggs, inside jokes and brand name parodies. Disney’s own films come in for a particular ribbing, as when the cape buffalo police chief assures Judy her life won’t be like a colorful cartoon where her wishes will come true, so “let it go.” There’s also a slew of bootleg DVDs spotted briefly with titles like Wrangled, Wreck-It Rhino and Pig Hero 6.

Even though the answer is obvious (Howard’s already described how they took the in-progress Zootopia to Pixar in search of feedback), I ask Bush if there’s any rivalry between Disney and Pixar, Burbank vs. Emeryville.

“Right now we rely on each other. When we screened it for them it was great to have fresh eyes that have the same process. It allows you to trust the feedback you’re getting. They bring their films down to Disney animation and we give them similar notes. It’s a group of peers we respect and appreciate. When one of us does a movie we try to the raise bar each time. It’s something you really look forward to.”


Johnston adds, “We look at each other’s films from a technical viewpoint. When we did Tangled Pixar asked us ‘How did you do that hair?’ When we started doing fur for this movie we looked at the female bear from Brave; they did an amazing job of muscle and skin moving over each other. ‘How’d you do that?’ We can build from a knowledge base. Each of us is pushing the other creatively. Not just story-wise, but what we’re doing technically.”

There’s no software exchange going on, however. “Our base systems are completely different; we can’t just take their software but we can understand the philosophy behind it, how they approach it, then we can build a way that will work in our system.”

As our interview nears its end, Howard muses on an animation career that began as a tour guide at the long gone Orlando animation studio inside what was once Disney-MGM Studios. “I applied four times, but they kept saying no. I thought in the meantime if I can’t get down there where I want to be at that drawing desk, I can at least be close to what I love so much. I was this poor kid, face pressed against the window.” [Literally; the animation studio was behind glass so tourists could walk through the facility and look over the artists’ shoulders as they worked.] Howard finally made it in as an inbetweener on Pocahontas, and worked his way up to director.

“What’s great about that was it’s very much a mentorship process. The guy who trained me, Aaron Blaise [one of Brother Bear’s directors] was trained by Glen Keane, who was trained by Ollie Johnston, and Ollie was trained by the great Fred Moore. So there’s that lineage I love about this place. Now the animators that Rich and I work with are the same way. We’re all part of this string of knowledge and responsibility we have to keep it alive.”

By the way, if you’re curious as to what Zootopia’s predators eat if prey animals are no longer on the menu, Bush is glad to enlighten you: “Insects and plant-based proteins. We used to have them eat fish but people got confused whether fish were evolved or not, so we lost that idea.” Howard adds, “In this world the most popular fast food place for predators is ‘BugBurger,’ where you can get a grasshopper shake or a cicada burger -- all viable protein. In one scene Nick is moving part of a fence; if you look near his feet you’ll see BugBurger boxes on the ground.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.