THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Zootopia’

The one that dared to tackle bigotry.

One of the cornerstones of the decades of Disney animated films has been crafting adorable talking animal characters that not only capture the hearts of audiences but also lend themselves to an endless stream of profitable merchandise. Whether it was a cute baby circus elephant in Dumbo, a family of jazz-loving felines in The Aristocats, or two dogs forming an unlikely romance in Lady and the Tramp, Disney consistently fell back on its tried and true formula of placing animals at the forefront of its animated narratives.

While an array of loveable animal characters had essentially kept the studio afloat in previous eras, Disney hadn’t exactly seen success with animal-centric animated features in the 21st century. After films like Brother Bear, Home on the Range, and Chicken Little left little impact on audiences, Disney began to focus more heavily on human narratives, with The Princess and the Frog and Bolt standing as the final creature features for almost a decade.

When John Lasseter was installed as the new Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006, he keenly understood Disney’s legacy of hugely popular animal stars, particularly given Lasseter considered Dumbo to be the studio’s greatest film. Lasseter consistently pushed the animation department to pitch possible projects involving animals as the stars of the show. As fate would have it, one of those pitches would subsequently become one of the most successful releases in its entire history.

In early 2013, Tangled co-director Byron Howard pitched Lasseter several possible projects involving animal characters, including an animal adaption of The Three Musketeers, a 60s-theme caper about a maniacal doctor who turned children into animals (yikes), and a space adventure starring a bounty-hunter pug. Howard was inspired by Robin Hood, with all three concepts centring on anthropomorphic animals who talked and acted like humans. While workshopping the ideas with Lasseter, Howard cracked the key conceit to his pitch; what if animals lived in a modern world designed by animals for animals?

Lasseter suggested Howard should combine the 60s theme with an animal narrative, which led to the development of Savage Seas, an international spy thriller starring a James Bond-like arctic rabbit named Jack Savage. Working with screenwriter Jared Bush, the project was developed for almost a year before being presented to the wider Disney team for feedback, who felt the film’s strongest element was its opening act, set in a city created by and for animals.

As such, Howard dropped both the 60s setting and the espionage angle and reworked the project as a contemporary police procedural called Zootopia, starring a police duo of Nick Wilde, a cunning fox, and his sidekick Judy Hopps, a wide-eyed bunny. In late 2014, Howard realised the film’s plot worked better with Judy at the helm, with the storyline now focused on Judy’s journey from rural Bunnyburrow to the urban metropolis of Zootopia to fulfil her unlikely childhood dream of becoming a police officer.

From here, Judy would inadvertently uncover a major government conspiracy and team up with Nick, who was now reimagined as a sly street con-artist who hustles Judy during her first day on the job. The pair were written as the unlikeliest of duos who ultimately become the best of friends, with Judy’s endless optimism juxtaposed by Nick’s pessimistic cynicism. The broader plot would allow the filmmakers to focus on themes of racism, bigotry, intolerance, and sexism, namely by way of a subplot regarding the potentially deadly animal instincts of predatory species.

In March 2015, less than a year from the film’s intended release, Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore was added to the production as co-director, with Lasseter feeling the project was growing so expansive, it required two directors to keep everything together. Moore also worked closely with Howard on the script, paying particular attention to fleshing out the film’s burgeoning roster of supporting characters.

The animation team spent over eight months studying dozens of different animals in the wild during a research trip to Kenya, while also attending Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where they were granted closer interactions with the creatures in their habitats. To achieve the creation of realistic fur for the various characters, the team attended the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles to closely observe the appearance of fur under a microscope through a variety of lighting.

For the design of Zootopia itself, the animators took inspiration from several major cities of the world including New York City, Las Vegas, Paris, and Shanghai, while several unique habitats were created for various species to call home, including Tundratown, Sahara Square, Savanna Central, and the Rainforest District. Each world was designed to specifically cater to the needs of its local residents, with individualised climates, architecture, and transportation.

The Downtown area of Zootopia was design as a central business district to be inhabited by various mammals of wildly different sizes and from drastically different climates. To achieve a utopian world that was accessible for any animal, the design team consulted with American with Disabilities Act specialists and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system designers to craft elements of the city that purposely catered to animals of every species, including transportation tubes for lemmings and waterways for amphibious creatures.

For the film’s complicated character designs, the studio’s engineers developed a brand-new software program iGroom, which allowed the animators precise control over the brushing, shaping, and shading of fur and allowed the creation of unique character styles for each animal. The software also allowed animators the ability to manipulate an unseen skin-like under layer that gave fur a degree of lushness never before seen in animation. The program also provided a painless process of multiplying individual strands hairs on each creature, with Judy and Nick both requiring around 2.5 million hairs each, while background giraffe characters required approximately 9 million hairs.

The production team utilised the groundbreaking Hyperion rendering system, which had first been used during the production of Big Hero 6. The system allowed for dazzlingly realistic final animations, with a new fur element added to the renderer to further facilitate the creation of authentic fur and hair. The Hyperion system also allowed for the replication of the natural movement of light to create photorealistic shots. The engineering team also developed a new real-time display application called Nitro, which was used to allow the fur to appear more intact and subtle.

For the creation of dozens of variations of trees and plants, the team utilised a software generator called Bonsai, which had first been used during the production of Frozen. Once the software was instructed how to make one individual tree, it regenerated many different variations to create an expansive rainforest with intricately layered foliage. By the end of production, Zootopia would feature over 800,000 forms of mammals in its gargantuan cast of lead, supporting, and background characters that was one of the largest ever created for a Disney animated feature film.

In May 2015, Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin were cast respectively in the roles of Nick and Judy. Bateman was offered the role without the need for an audition, with the filmmakers confident he would bring his trademark dry wit and wiliness to the character, especially given Bateman had played roles similar to Nick his entire career. Goodwin was put through an exhaustive audition process before being cast in the key role of the naive but brave wannabe cop. Moore felt Goodwin brought centred sweetness and a great sense of humour to the part, with the actor able to perfectly balance Judy’s sweet nature with her blunt determination to succeed.

The film’s original score was composed by Michael Giacchino, which marked his first collaboration with Walt Disney Animation Studios. Giacchino had been a stalwart of Pixar animated features, composing the scores for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars 2, and Up, for which he was awarded an Academy Award for Best Original Score. In addition to providing the voice of pop star character Gazelle, Shakira also contributed an original song for Zootopia entitled “Try Everything,” which was co-written by Sia, with lyrics that played on the film’s central theme of anyone can be anything.

Zootopia was released on March 4, 2016, to widespread acclaim from film critics. In fact, Zootopia was Rotten Tomatoes’ second-highest-rated film of 2016 behind Best Picture winner Moonlight. Richard Roeper exclaimed, “Zootopia is one of my favourite animated movies. Not one of my favourite animated movies of the last year or two, or of the last decade, or in recent memory. It’s one of my favourite animated movies, period,” The New York Times called the film “funny, smart, thought-provoking – and musical, too,” and the Washington Post declared Zootopia the “best animated film of the year.”

The response from the general public was equally as positive, with Zootopia grossing $341.3 million in the U.S. and a further $682.5 million internationally for a staggering worldwide total of $1.02 billion. This made Zootopia only the second Disney animated film to gross more than $1 billion and the fourth-highest grossing animated film in history at that point. By the end of 2016, Zootopia was the fourth-highest grossing film of the year, behind Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One, and Finding Dory and ultimately made Disney an estimated profit of $300 million. At the 89th Academy Awards, Zootopia became the third successive Disney animated film to win Best Animated Feature, which was rather remarkable, given the film had been released almost a full year prior to the awards.

With its daring bid to craft an animated film targeted at children that subtlety (and not so subtlety) shines a light on important topics like racism, bigotry, and sexism, Zootopia may well be the most subversive Disney film ever released. It’s not every day you get a “children’s film” that dares to tackle issues like racial prejudice, gender inequality and social xenophobia. Zootopia sends a clear message of the resulting pain that comes from prejudging others based on their heritage, which is undoubtedly a message of even greater pertinence four years later.

Zootopia may feature a cast of animal characters, but its core centres on very human issues. Even small moments like a mother bunny moving her young child closer to her when a perfectly innocuous tiger sits beside them on the subway pack a hefty punch of relevance. The world of Zootopia is indeed a utopian society, with its various species all living in perfect harmony. But Zootopia shows how it only takes a slight crack in society to cause utter chaos. And the fact that crack appears by the fault of the city’s police force feels terribly relevant in 2020.

But the true success of Zootopia lies with how the film expertly juggles its important message with boundless entertainment to avoid children being consciously aware they’re actually learning something from an animated film. They’ll be too delighted by the stunning animation design, thrilling sequences, and the glorious and instantly-iconic characters, namely due to the enchanting voice-over work throughout.

Lead by the genius pairing of adorable Goodwin and slick Bateman, their evolving friendship is beautiful to behold, and delivers one of the film’s most powerful messages – never judge a book by its cover. Ultimately, this dichotomous reaction to the film is the mark of a truly great animated film; one that works successfully for both young and old alike, for a multitude of different reasons.

On a technical level, Zootopia is another sublime piece of animated cinema, with impressively detailed world-building and spectacular character designs. You could truly watch this film on mute and just enjoy the visual delights the animation team have cooked up. But then you’d miss the supreme laughs and touching emotion of the glorious screenplay, which should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Frankly, I could easily make a case the film was snubbed of a Best Picture nod too.

Everything here just works so wonderfully well and the film is ultimately elevated by its brave insistence on offering a children’s film with more substance than practically any other Disney animated film. What a remarkable moment it was to see a piece of Disney animation that actually had something to say about society. Subversive is not a trait we normally see from a studio who rarely wants to rock the boat. But Zootopia sure did rock it, and then some. We needed a film like Zootopia in 2016, but, boy, do we need it more than ever in 2020.

Is Zootopia a Disney Classic? With a pertinent message to convey but the intelligence to hide it in animation form, Zootopia stood as a perfect blend of entertainment and information. It provided all the laughs and thrills to keep your kids happy, but with a subtle yet powerful subtext to hopefully teach the next generation to learn from the mistakes of the past. Zootopia is a masterpiece of animation in both style and substance, easily making the film a modern-day Disney Classic.