Ever since Mickey Mouse came on the pop culture scene, Disney has had a long standing tradition of using anthropomorphic animals in its animated features, from classics like “Bambi” and “Dumbo” to more recent entries like “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille.” You may be thinking that once you’ve seen one bipedal beast speaking English, you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong! Because Walt Disney Animation has made an animal-centric movie like no other with “Zootopia.”
Just as the studio had a Renaissance at the tail end of the twentieth century with 2-D animation in the form of “The Little Mermaid,” it has recently been outdoing itself in the world of 3-D animation as well over the last decade or so. “Tangled,” “Wreck-It-Ralph,” “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6” have cemented Disney Animation as a major force to be reckoned with During a presentation in Drexel’s Stein Auditorium Feb. 24, “Zootopia” directors Byron Howard (a Pennsylvania native and director of “Tangled”) and Rich Moore (director of one of my all-time favorites “Wreck-It-Ralph” in addition to episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Futurama”) said that Disney animators must fulfill four criteria when making films: tell a timeless story, make it entertaining for all ages, include humor and emotion and the final product must live up to Walt’s standard. Howard related a humorous anecdote about how John Lasseter raised him “like Baby Simba” and danced with him around the room when he pitched the idea for “Zootopia.”
The movie imagines a world where animals — mammals in particular — rather than humans evolved into civilized beings, casting off their savage and primal tendencies of prehistory and living in peaceful harmony with one another. Well, not exactly. Even though the hunters and the hunted live side-by-side, they are quick to pigeonhole one another into species stereotypes. Commonplace expressions in our world like “sneaky as a fox” or “cute as a bunny” are offensive insults in this universe and herein lies Zootopia’s powerful, relevant and unique commentary on discrimination and racism in modern society.
“If this animal world really evolved, if they have put this eating thing behind them about a 1000 years ago, did they totally let go of that predator-prey mistrust of each other? And just like our own world, like people — groups of people — don’t inherently trust each other. Everybody, I think, wants to feel safe and people find safety in their sameness,” Howard said, explaining the origin of these themes.
“Zootopia” follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from a simple carrot farm and the first of her kind to become a police officer. With ideals as pure as the snow in “Frozen” of changing the world for the better and not letting her small stature get in the way of her goals, her career takes her to the sprawling metropolis of Zootopia where the animal puns are endless!
It’s a city broken into several different terrains and habitats like “Tundratown,” “Rainforest District” and “Sahara Square” inhabited by 64 different animal species, according to the directors. They sadly had to leave out an island for Outback marsupials where there’d be a pickpocketing problem and an underground system of tunnels for nocturnal creatures. And if you were wondering, Rich is a die-hard fan of dogs and prehistoric-looking rhinos while Byron’s more of an echidna man.
To make this particular animal-based project different from all others, the animators strove to accurately portray the scale sizes between creatures big and small, from shrews to elephants. Trips to Kenya and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, consulting with the world’s foremost fern expert (no joke!), attending Cirque Du Soleil shows in Vegas and research of fur at a microscopic level were undertaken to get a better idea of how certain animals look and behave as well as what their biomes look like.
On the subject of fur, Howard told The Triangle that the crew put a lot of effort into making the animals’ coats as genuine as possible, differentiating them from wildly different human hair, which a lot of modern animation does not do. This care and precision really shows in the beautifully rendered landscapes and characters. All said and done, the entire project took five years to make with about 800 people working on it. In fact, Howard called it “the most complex film Disney has ever made” with 150 unique sets with constantly moving parts. Those familiar with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” will be familiar with the incredibly subtle attention to detail in the phrase “Bumping the Lamp” that the audience may not even notice.
When Judy gets to her dream city, however, she realizes that the reality of the big city is quite different from her notions of a utopian society. She’s looked down upon by everyone on the force, especially Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), an irascible cape buffalo who gives her the most hated of all jobs: parking duty. To prove her worth and save the precarious prey-predator dynamic, Judy must team up with con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who, while a bit higher on the food chain, still comes with his own baggage that forces him to act as society seems him. The unlikely duo stumble upon a mysterious conspiracy that is somewhat inspired by the directors’ mutual love of film noir such as “L.A. Confidential,” “Chinatown” and “Double Indemnity.”
“We kinda go back to the things we loved growing up and as adults, you know, and synthesizing it into something new,” Moore said.“Yeah we get to ‘Geek Out’ about everything,” Howard added.
Judy and Nick’s adventure brings them in contact with a lion mayor (J.K. Simmons), a deputy sheep mayor (Jenny Slate), a distraught otter wife (Octavia Spencer), a gazelle pop star (Shakira) a nudist yak (Tommy Chong) and a Marlon Brando reimagined as an arctic shrew.
On working with such a talented voice cast, the directors said they were able to secure their top choices for the roles, their inner fan boys freaking out over Tommy Chong in particular. Seeing them all together on the red carpet of the premiere was “surreal,” Howard commented.
“They were all really good people and a pleasure to work with,” Moore said. “I’ve never encountered anyone that’s been unpleasant. It just seems like actors are really excited to be in animation and they really wanna kind a be part of it, they want to make it work and everyone in this cast was eager to kind of experiment and go off page and kind of play around with the scenes. And that’s fun. To me, I really love that part of the job.”
A running theme in Howard and Moore’s past movies like “Bolt” and “Ralph” is that of underdogs. When asked about where this came from Howard said, “I think you’ll see a lot of times with films and especially animated films that underdogs are a way to make you root for a character.” He said he and Rich had experiences with bullies growing up and described the process of making a story “[is] like a three-year-long therapy session where you’re sitting there for years and years just talking and talking and talking about your feelings.”
When discussing this subject, Moore talked about his graduation from CalArts and early years in the animation business, talking about, “That feeling of ‘Yeah I’m gonna work in animation’ and then, you know, actually getting into it and finding out like, that it’s not what I expected or having these big plans of you know, ‘I’m gonna do this, this, and that’ and then realizing ‘Ok, the animation industry has other ideas. They have different opinions about me and my ideas,” he said.
On the subject of a highly anticipated “Wreck-It-Ralph 2,” he was more tight-lipped with the non-committal answer, “I’m definitely thinking about it, we’ll see what happens.”
Overall, “Zootopia” is a cute funny and clever example of what animation can be, enjoyable for both kids and adults with an important message about rising above our differences. As Mr. Howard put it so eloquently, “We are what we are, but maybe if we learn to look past that, we can learn who we could be.”