Back in 2010, when Byron Howard and Nathan Greno finished work on Tangled, they wanted to make another movie immediately. “When you go to pitch to John Lasseter, you usually come in with three or four ideas. And Nathan Greno and I came in with six,” Howard explained. “We wanted to get back into the rotation of getting a film out because it takes so long.”
Among the ideas that they proposed: Pug the Bounty Hunter, an intergalactic adventure starring an intrepid rabbit (disregarded because there was a similar project in development at the studio); The Island of Dr. Meow, a “Roger Corman cheap B-movie in animation” that concerned a group of teenagers who travel to a creepy island where a six-foot cat is turning people into animals (an idea deemed “too weird”); and a spy movie involving animals (a story that felt too close to the then-recently-released Cars 2). Still, all of the ideas shared an idea that Lasseter, a huge fan of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, sparked to. He told the team, “What I like is that you have these anthropomorphic animals, so why don’t you combine ideas and come up with something.” (One of Howard’s favorite movies was Robin Hood, and took the legacy of Disney talking animal movies very seriously.) The original idea for the spy film had two animal spies getting assigned a mission in a sprawling animal metropolis and then traveling to an island, not unlike the one seen in the Island of Dr. Meow pitch. “Everyone suggested that we take the first act of this movie and turn it into the entire movie,” Howard said. “And that was a big idea.”
As the film began to solidify, Greno moved on to develop Gigantic, a new take on “Jack and the Beanstalk” with new songs from the Frozen songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and Jared Bush became a co-writer and co-director. After Howard and Bush had worked on the film for two years, Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore and Wreck-It Ralph co-writer Phil Johnston came aboard the project in the fall of 2014, as director and co-writer, respectively.
“As it happens, you discover things as you’re making it. We screen them as rough story reels internally, to our crew and colleagues, and then have a meeting right after to talk about what’s working and what’s not,” Moore explained about the creative process at Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was a screening in October of 2015 that a new idea was sparked. For a long time, the movie’s main character was con artist fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), with plucky bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as his secondary foil. “They were trying to tell this story of Zootopia from the perspective of someone who didn’t like the city very much. He’s a predator animal and he’s feeling oppressed,” Moore said. “As colleagues in the story trust, we’re always trying to help the filmmaker tell that story that they want to tell, rather than trying to say, ‘You should do this instead.’” The Walt Disney Animation Studios Story Trust, a collection of directors, writers and story artists who advise on every film decided a change was in order.
Several attendees to screenings around this time had the same note: they hated the city. The problem was simple: the filmmakers were asking the audience to love the city of Zootopia, but the city was outwardly “cruel to our main character” (in Moore’s words).
Jared Bush described the moment as “a wake-up call that we had to investigate immediately.” And investigate they did. “In trying to make this movie work, we’ve overlooked that one key thing,” Moore said. “It happens when you’re so close to the material. And it was like, we have one year to get it done.”
2014 was also the year that Big Hero 6 was released, and with it, the Hyperion rendering system was introduced. Hyperion gave the animated movies’ improved physics systems. “There’s no way we could have depicted a city like this five years ago,” Moore said. Not only are there dozens of animal species, each with unique hair and fur and clothing, but the city is stuffed with different light sources, reflective textures, and, thanks to a new system called Keep Alive, countless plants that are always moving in the breeze. Howard added: “When we started it was too ambitious for what the studio was capable of at the time. With Hyperion, we could see lighting a lot earlier. With Tangled and Bolt it was almost like you were shooting a scene with a live action set with the lights off.”
Just as revolutionary as the technology though, was the comedy, which combines a number of pop culture references, inside jokes, and satirical asides, to create a rhythm that is wholly unique. One of the gags that the team is proudest of is one of several sly nods to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ runaway hit, Frozen. “It’s amazing that we were able to tell the joke that Alan Tudyk could play the Duke of Weselton in one movie and play Duke Weaselton, who is a weasel, in another movie,” Moore said. Howard remarked that, “That joke is an infinity mirror.” Moore went on: “I love the meta humor and it’s something that we haven’t done before. But it doesn’t feel like we broke the form. But enough to say, ‘Wow, I’m not used to that type of joke in a Disney movie but it feels right.’” It does feel right; there isn’t a single joke that feels unearned or so timely that it will date itself prematurely. The jokes, instead, are just a part of the rich and lively tapestry of Zootopia.
And while the story had solidified, tone established and the creative team formalized, there was still plenty that needed to get worked out. Last summer, at the D23 Expo, there was a version of a scene that takes place in an elephant ice cream shop that was screened as part of the larger animation panel. Several weeks later, there was a long lead press day for the movie, and an entirely different version of the scene was screened. “When Nick was the protagonist, that scene was about how smooth he was. Once it became Judy’s story and we played that scene, it made her seem really stupid. Because it made it seem like he was hustling her,” Moore explained. “We liked to experience the story through our main character.” The decision to change it, Howard said, was incredibly difficult. But the story demanded it. “The crew worked so hard and it was fully animated,” Howard said. “That’s where you have to hope the crew trusts you. Of course it’s painful, but they got it.” Writer Phil Johnston said, “When you have themes and a tone that are this challenging, and to make it extraordinarily entertaining while achieving that tone and theme, it’s a hard movie to make.”
In fact, it wasn’t until last summer, when they screened the film in Chandler, Arizona, that the team realized they were really on track. It was the audience’s response to this screening that helped everyone rally and really get the movie in shape. “The audience was responding really well to the characters, story, world, and theme. Then we could go in and polish and nuance,” producer Clark Spencer said. “It came at the right moment in time, to really push us through.” Johnston added: “The credits go on forever because everybody, including, literally, the security guards, are listed in the credits. Everyone puts a lot of stock in their part of these movies getting made.”
While Zootopia, as a finished film, bears little resemblance to the pitches that Lasseter first loved and green lit, it’s a beautifully, fully realized film, full of memorable characters, hilarious gags, jaw-dropping visuals, and thematic undercurrents that really mean something to our modern world. It went in some unusual directions, occasionally hit some dead ends, but the entirety of Walt Disney Animation Studios came together to make something that can be definitively described as an animated classic (and with a certified fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating, critics seem to agree as well). “As the films grow, they’re like kids. You can’t judge one against the other,” Howard said. “They’re going to mature at different rates and one will be a little more ready and slip ahead of the other one. It jockeys around a lot. Also, it has to do with what types of films we’re putting out. We don’t want years of one type of film. What’s great about the studio is that they support musicals and comedies and movies about video games.”
Talking to Howard and Moore months after the film’s initial release, it’s clear that they were taken aback by the public’s reaction to the film. Critics went wild for the movie (it’s got a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and audiences responded in kind (at the time of this writing, it’s still in the domestic top 10 and grossed over $1 billion worldwide). “I was shocked,” Howard admitted. But all of that pales in comparison with the kind of emotional outpouring the filmmakers have witnessed on platforms like social media.
“We thought doing this movie about bias was a complicated, challenging thing to do in an animated film, but it’s seems so compelling,” Moore explained. “We were really careful, I think, and we worked really hard to make sure the movie was saying exactly the right thing. But you never know whether people are going to feel like we’re trying to be preachy.” Pretty soon, though, Moore knew that the film had made an impact, thanks largely to Twitter: “We’ll get people who share stories.” He continued: “There was a young African American man that was sharing these stories of just how difficult it was going through high school as one of two African American students in the school, and him sharing with us what that experience was like. His grandfather was always telling him you have to push through it. Then for him to say seeing Zootopia and feeling so much, feeling akin to Judy, to Nick, and how everything his grandfather had taught him, and he had kind of stride for, he was seeing our characters achieving those kinds of things and doing those things on screen, and he felt like, I feel like I’m not so alone in this world,” that, you’re speaking to me through this movie, and it’s making my struggles all for the better, and worth it.”
Moore was clearly moved telling the story, and said that hearing reactions like this meant the world to him. “Reading real accounts from real people, to hear this kid, through this movie sharing these experiences, and how he found hope through the story, is like, That’s why we do this. That’s what this is about.”
“I think one thing we’re really proud of is that you can find your own experiences with bias and empowerment in the movie. That’s one of the great things I think animation can do that live action really can’t as often,” Howard added. “It’s great because it gives you the power to make something a modern theme that’s a very sophisticated message, and the fact that the message resonates from very young children to the oldest people who go to see these films, and across the world, I think we were impressed with how universal the ideas in the movie resonating with audience everywhere, and that was really rewarding for us.”
Clearly, the movie has been embraced. It’s not just the financial and critical success that has cemented the film as a new Disney animated classic. Characters from the film are now appearing in the Disney Parks, and are well on their way to becoming just as beloved as the characters you grew up adoring. Meeting the characters, Moore said, “has a special meaning, I think, that people carry for a very, very long time.” The home video release, too, exposes the film to even more fans, and those who already saw the film will be able to appreciate the film even more, thanks to a wealth of bonus features (many of them hosted and/or curated by Howard and Moore). You’ll get to see some of those ideas that were lost along the way, and get the inside scoop on how clever workarounds were conceived and actualized.
But now, at the end of the road to Zootopia, the question remained: does Howard feel as zesty as he did when Tangled was wrapping up and he was angling to start his next project? “I’m a little older,” Howard said when I asked. “I think I’ve learned to appreciate taking a breath. There’s a point where you’re producing so much and not living, and there’s a balance, and so even just having a moment to sit and go, Ah, what was that whole experience” And just appreciate where we are. Even just giving yourself a moment to absorb what happened and the success of the movie, and the fact that, Wow we’re really proud of what we did. We’re really proud of the people around us. And we can feel good about that, and then we can go, “I’m refreshed and I can move onto the next thing.” It’s funny because these things are so punishing to go through, in a lot of ways, but I think all of us are so addicted to this process and we love it so much that we’d gladly jump back into the fire to do it.”