Animal kingdom in Disney’s ‘Zootopia’ needed fresh perspective, filmmakers say

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It’s no industry secret that Hollywood films undergo test-audience trials during production to see what works and what doesn’t. With Disney’s latest animated feature film, a mid-production analysis really seems to have helped elevate the film creatively and help it better grapple with some serious topics.

Disney’s newest animated movie, “Zootopia,” wasn’t always going to be presented from the perspective of an optimistic bunny from a small town. Despite the years of research, set-building and character development that had been invested in the film, it wasn’t until halfway through the process that Judy Hopps became the leading lady, Director Byron Howard said.

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Filmmakers recently spoke to writers and bloggers, including me, about the development of “Zootopia” during roundtable interviews at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. They each explained how critical it is that the audience’s introduction to the city of Zootopia — home to 64 species of animals who could “be anyone or anything” — be a positive one.

Originally, a slick con-artist fox named Nick Wilde was the main character. But the problem with that, Howard said, was that a test audience at Pixar Animation Studios couldn’t connect with the movie. “[One executive] said, ‘Because you’re introducing the city through Nick’s eyes, and Nick’s a cynic and he doesn’t like the city, I can’t like the city. I can’t root for it. I want to escape from it rather than see it healed.’ “

Even Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter encouraged the filmmakers to think of the city itself as a character, urging them to make it more vibrant than just a backdrop.

“We realized we had a major issue there, so we said ‘Let’s take a chance and just for a moment, see what happens if we flip the main characters’,” Howard said. “We put the more idealistic Judy in the driver’s seat so the audience learns about Zootopia through her more optimistic eyes and then bring in the cynicism and the challenge to her philosophy later. And that really did the trick.”

Zootopia is comprised of neighborhoods that celebrate different cultures and they co-exist peacefully. That’s vital to the plot of “Zootopia,” Howard said.

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Directors Byron Howard (left) and Rich Miller introduce ‘Zootopia’ at a press screening in Orlando.

“We never started with a political agenda. It all came from the research: Mammals are 90 percent prey animals and 10 percent predators. We thought that was a really interesting fact. That if mammals evolved and built this metropolis, would they leave the mistrust completely behind or does it lurk under the surface somewhere?” he said.

“We’ve seen animal worlds where they all live together in peace and harmony, but how did it get that way? Do they ever arrive at a place where a lion and a deer can live together side by side when we know a lion eats a deer? How did it happen? Even better they’ve come to a place of trusting each other and then the social contract is broken. What would happen to society if the fear of a predator was ignited?”

Those questions all lead to the exploration of the themes of bias, stereotypes, inclusiveness and diversity in “Zootopia.” And the themes are delivered in the animals’ actions, rather than an obvious message, which is more appealing to audiences.

“And it’s the beauty of animation, I think, in that you can create fables that resonate on multiple levels, and in the case of this one, I think we’re gonna have families talking and thinking about the world in a slightly different way or I hope so, anyway, after seeing the movie,” said screenwriter Phil Johnston. And that’s really gratifying when that happens.”

DISCLAIMER: I took part in a “Zootopia” press junket, during which I attended an advance screening of the movie, a party at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and round-table interviews with actors and filmmakers. Although coverage of the movie was expected, my opinions are completely my own.


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