Before a screening of Zootopia a couple of weeks ago at Walt Disney World, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore did a brief introduction. They talked about the making of the movie and referenced past Walt Disney Animation Studios films about animals; the ones that inspired them to make something new. On the big screen were images from five classics: Dumbo, Bambi, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and The Lion King.
And it’s easy to see that lineage, from Dumbo all the way up to Zootopia, when looking at how important talking-animal movies are to Walt Disney Animation Studios.
When Walt Disney was looking at material to adapt into the first feature-length animated film, he already had talking animals on his mind. During Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ pre-production (chock full of technological and artistic breakthroughs), M. Lincoln Schuster of the Simon & Schuster publishing company suggested that Walt adapt a Felix Salten novel, first published overseas in 1923 and released in the United States in 1928, called Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Disney bought the rights but continued working on Snow White. Bambi would ultimately become Walt’s fifth animated feature.
Dumbo was the first talking-animal movie Disney released. (There were anthropomorphic animals in Pinocchio and Fantasia but not on the scale of Dumbo.) Released in 1941, the film was based on a story written for a toy prototype (it was called a Roll-a-Book and was essentially a comic strip that you unrolled; early iterations were tested in boxes of cereal). Zootopia filmmakers were inspired by the raw emotionality of Dumbo, especially the sequence when Dumbo’s mother Mrs. Jumbo rocks him to sleep in her trunk. While largely remembered for its colorful characters and humor, what makes Dumbo special are those emotional, sometimes heartbreaking moments.
Bambi, released in 1942 (just a year after Dumbo!), featured an even more naturalistic approach to the design and behaviors of the characters. The characters in Bambi were identifiably animals. The way Bambi moved through the forest was truthful to how a real deer would. Walt was so insistent on being true to life that he would bring deer to the studio to make sure animators captured every nuance of the animals’ movements and idiosyncrasies. The filmmakers behind Zootopia strived for this level of realism, applying it to every aspect of the film’s world, and thanks to modern technology and opportunity, they were able to take it even further than the animators who worked on Bambi. They went and studied animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, which director Byron Howard describes as “the premiere zoological preserve in the world,” and observed what real-life animals do. “It was really neat to see giant congregations of animals,” co-screenwriter/co-director Jared Bush told us. “A lot of these animals have their own things going on. Cape buffalos don’t love elephants. And you see that out there.”
So even though the animals in Zootopia wear pants and use smartphones, their animal behavior patterns remain intact. “Another thing is that in big shots we put the animals in small herds instead of just seeing a giraffe, an elephant, zebra,” producer Clark Spencer said. “You might have done that in a crowd shot, because typically you disperse these things. But we realized they should be in groups, instead of them being completely individual.”
The Lion King, released in 1994, and based on an original idea, had a similar aesthetic and approach to its animal characterizations as Bambi. Like Bambi and Zootopia, real-life animals were studied, down to the smallest detail, with actual lions being brought to Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. (Also of note: Byron Howard started out his career at Walt Disney Animation Studios giving tours in the Magic of Disney Animation building in Florida. “The Lion King was about to come out, there was this fire underneath 2D animation,” Howard said. It was this job that would not only inspire him, but pave the way for his career in animation. “I saw Glen Keane and Mark Henn come through. I finally got in. People were very nice to me. They knew I didn’t have the money to do figure-drawing classes, so they let me annex the figure-drawing classes that the animators had.”)
Many animators cite The Jungle Book, released in 1967 and featuring character animation from legends like Ken Anderson and Milt Kahl, as some of the finest character animation the studio has ever produced. It is also Rich Moore’s favorite film. “That is the first one I ever saw as a kid,” he said. “The era of The Jungle Book was when the animators were at the top of their game and their sense of character was great,” Howard said. “Cory Loftis, our character designer, took those original character designs and adapted them for our world. They had thousands of photographs of skunks and foxes and zebras and tigers to see what they really look like.” The animators on The Jungle Book, too, studied reference footage, some from the company itself (Kahl’s Bagheera was modeled after tigers in the 1964 live-action drama A Tiger Walks and the “Jungle Cats” installment of groundbreaking nature documentary series True-Life Adventures).
And then there’s Robin Hood, released in 1973. This is probably the film that Zootopia bears the closest resemblance to, at least on a character animation level. All of the characters in Robin Hood are fully anthropomorphic: they stand upright, wear clothes, and generally act like human beings. Also, the main character is a charming, roguish fox (Zootopiah’s lead fox is Nick Wilde and is voiced by Jason Bateman). They definitely look similar, which was part of the plan. Robin Hood is Byron Howard’s favorite Disney movie, and when he initially pitched what would ultimately become Zootopia, this was the touchstone he utilized. “I grew up on Robin Hood and I love that movie, so there’s a lot of Robin Hood in Nick’s DNA,” Howard told us recently. “Cory Loftis really looked at the Disney legacy of character animal design, but now that we can do all of this amazing stuff with fur and clothing, every species of animal in this movie has a different fur type. It’s just incredible.” John Lasseter immediately loved the idea of doing a talking animal film.(His favorite movie is Dumbo, but he loves Wind in the Willows from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.)
That’s part of what makes Zootopia such a special, exceptional film–it coalesces a 75-year legacy of Disney’s animated animal features (other films in the genre include The Rescuers, Lady and the Tramp and Oliver & Company), firmly paying tribute to what’s come before it but also pushing things forward on a technological and storytelling level. Evolution is always a constant in the animal kingdom.
Zootopia is out now.