Creating Disney’s Zootropolis: a modern mammal metropolis unlike any other city
In its 92-year history, Walt Disney Animation Studios has created a long and storied legacy of talking-animal films—from Mickey Mouse’s debut short Steamboat Willie to Bambi, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and The Lion King, and returns to the wild with the feature film Zootropolis, which marks Disney Animation Studios’ 55th animated feature.
“We all grew up watching the great Disney animal films—we were immersed in those worlds,” says director Byron Howard. (Tangled, Bolt), who directed the film with Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons), from a screenplay by co-director Jared Bush (Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero) and Phil Johnston (Wreck-It Ralph, Grimsby).
“My favorite childhood film was ‘Robin Hood,’ and we wanted to honor that legacy, but in a new and different way that dives even deeper. We started by asking, ‘What would a mammal metropolis look like if it were designed by animals?’ The idea was incredibly exciting to us.”
The modern mammal metropolis of Zootropolis is a city like no other. Comprised of habitat neighborhoods like ritzy Sahara Square and frigid Tundratown, it’s a melting pot where animals from every environment live together—a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything. But when rookie Officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) arrives, she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), to solve the mystery. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootropolis,” a comedy-adventure directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “The Simpsons”) and co-directed by Jared Bush (“Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero”).
Officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin), the very first bunny on Zootropolis’ police force, jumps at the opportunity to crack her first case—even if it means partnering with fast-talking, scam-artist fox Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman) to solve the mystery.
“At its core, ‘Zootropolis’ is a buddy movie,” says director Rich Moore. “Judy and Nick—a rabbit and a fox—are natural enemies by definition. So these characters don’t exactly get along at first. They come to the relationship with ideas about each other—beliefs that aren’t informed or accurate.”
According to Howard, the fact that the buddies don’t get along fuels the film’s comedy. “Judy is the eternal optimist who believes anyone can be anything—it’s the city’s motto, after all,” he says. “Nick is the complete opposite. He’s a cynic. He believes we are what we are. So we put this country bumpkin who’s full of vim and vigor in the middle of the big city alongside Nick—the realist—and he gets to have a lot of fun messing with her. But she has a few tricks up her sleeve.”
Filmmakers conceived and built the vast and detailed world of Zootropolis, populating it with 64 different species of animals that retain what makes each animal so amazing in the real world—but these animals talk and wear pants.
“The team spent 18 months just researching animals,” says producer Clark Spencer. “We met with animal experts from all over the world, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. We traveled 9,000 miles to Kenya, Africa, for a two-week deep dive into animal personality and behavior. We wanted each species of animal to be real, to feel authentic and to be based on their real-world behavior.”
“I think all of us were profoundly changed by our trip to Africa,” adds Jared Bush, who is co-director and one of the screenwriters. “It’s such an amazing experience, being around hundreds, thousands of animals. In this movie, we want to feel that density, which is a lot of work. We came back after that trip with a sincere need to make it right.”
A Big Idea: Filmmakers Balance Complex Theme with Authenticity, Fun and Adventure
Research is the foundation for all of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ films—something executive producer John Lasseter believes is required to create a great story. So when the filmmakers behind “Zootropolis” decided to create an all-animal world, they went wild—literally—when it came to research. In addition to their trek to Africa, team members spent time at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and San Diego’s Wild Animal Park; they interviewed several experts and visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “We did about 18 months of really solid research into animals,” says director Byron Howard. “We studied how they interact in the wild, how they socialize and how their individual communities are built in the natural world.
“We found that the majority of animals—90 percent—are prey,” continues Howard. “Only 10 percent are predators. So while we always assumed that predators ruled the animal world, they’re actually the minority. We talked to anthropologists and sociologists and took a look way back through human history—any time you have a majority and minority, social issues arise. We learned and observed that animals of all kinds tend to stay with animals that look like them; they find refuge and protection within their individual groups and tend to avoid animals that are different.”
So the research led the filmmakers to a story that deals with stereotypes and bias. “We set out to make a funny animal movie,” says Howard. “But the more digging we did, we saw an opportunity to talk about something important—while still having great fun with the world, the characters and the story.”
According to head of story Josie Trinidad, filmmakers first looked at prey versus predator and how that would affect a community like Zootropolis. “Then we leaned into animal stereotypes—elephants never forget, foxes are sly, rabbits are timid—everyone has a stereotype they’re fighting against. That’s something everyone in the audience can appreciate.”
Filmmakers strived to strike the right balance in the story. “We worked very hard to find that sweet spot,” says director Rich Moore. “The goal from the beginning was to tell a very rich story that’s entertaining, has heart and says something meaningful.”
Head of story Jim Reardon says the filmmakers were careful to present the serious themes appropriately. Their approach? “Don’t preach, don’t tell. Show,” says Reardon. “We used the audiences expectations of specific animals and their relationships—rabbit and fox, lion and lamb—and turned them inside out. This was a crucial approach for the whole picture—take what the audience ‘knows’ about the animal world and use it as a forum for examining stereotyping.”
“We talked to an incredible bias expert, Dr. Shatki Butler,” adds producer Clark Spencer, “who said that it is hard to be biased against someone once you get to know him. That fundamental idea folded beautifully into our story of a bunny and a fox, natural enemies, both assuming something about each other, but learning their assumptions are completely wrong once they are forced to team up.”
A Big Move
Ever since she was a young bunny, Judy Hopps has wanted to be a police officer. The odds are against her, of course, because a bunny has never joined the Zootropolis Police Department—or even dared to try. The cops in Zootropolis are all big animals like rhinos, elephants and hippos. But that’s not going to stop Judy. “She has a strong sense of justice,” says Moore. “She stands up for the little guy, she doesn’t like bullies and she really takes to heart the motto of the big city: In Zootropolis, anyone can be anything.”
However, it’s not going to be easy. Judy isn’t built to be a police officer—or at least that’s what everyone thinks. But once she realizes that as a bunny, she has certain skills that will allow her to succeed, she soars through training, graduating at the top of her class. “She’s super tough and doesn’t like taking ‘no’ for an answer,” says co-screenwriter Phil Johnston. “If she gets something in her head, she’s going to pursue it.”
Judy gets her big break, however, when Chief Bogo is forced to give her a case. “Some mammals have gone missing,” says Jared Bush, co-director/co-writer. “One of them is Mr. Otterton, and his wife Mrs Otterton is desperate to find him. But because there are several other missing mammals, Chief Bogo is not giving the Otterton case the kind of attention she’d like. So Judy volunteers to help.”
Despite his better judgment, Bogo decides to allow Hopps to work the case, but he makes her strike a deal: she has 48 hours to solve the case or she has to resign from the police force. And Chief Bogo is hoping for that resignation. Judy accepts the challenge and hops into action, eager to make her mark—until she uncovers her first clue. “At some point prior to disappearing, Mr. Otterton had contact with Nick Wilde,” says Bush. “That’s her only lead. So she has to con the con man Nick into helping her, which kicks off this crazy journey with two total opposites trying to work together—or not.”
In a world where humans never existed, “Zootropolis” features a diverse cast of animal characters, which were inspired by their real-life counterparts. “Our research led us to cast specific animals in certain roles,” says producer Clark Spencer. “We learned that cape buffaloes are tough, relentless—so it made sense to make our chief of police a cape buffalo. We were told that wildebeests are not very bright, so we realized we could use them for comedy.”
According to Cory Loftis, who serves as the art director-characters, artists began by revisiting the classic Disney films. “[Director] Byron [Howard] is a huge fan of the 2D films like ‘Robin Hood,’ which is considered by many as the definitive animal animation. We had to find a way to take what Byron loves about those characters and put them into a 3D world with real fur and animal characteristics. It was tough to balance that stylized character that reflects those 2D sensibilities with what audiences expect from a 3D film.”
Head of characters and technical animation Dave Komorowski says that filmmakers had fun playing with audience expectations. “The characters of Zootropolis are all playing their parts, behaving as the world expects them to behave. The big cape buffalo is the police chief, the lion is the mayor, the fox is a con artist. It only takes one bunny from Bunnyburrow to question the status quo and turn what is expected of them on its head.
“I think the audience will be surprised by the robustness of the world,” continues Komorowski. “There are characters from all parts of the world and all different shapes and sizes in Zootropolis. We worked really hard to make it a world that you can get lost in, looking at all the details and uniqueness. I hope the audience enjoys the richness and diversity of these characters.”