A Whole New World: From Talking Animals to the Bustling Metropolis of ‘Zootopia’

Dumbo, Bambi, Baloo—take your pick. If you grew up watching movies, chances are there’s a talking cartoon animal that lives in your fondest memories. Indeed, anthropomorphic animals are a mainstay of, if not synonymous with, Walt Disney Animation Studios. John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios decided to tweak that winning and beloved legacy with this spring’s Zootopia. His challenge to his filmmakers: Imagine an entire city built and inhabited by animals. What would it look like? How would it suit mice and elephants? What if humans didn’t exist at all? As the title makes clear, Zootopia scraps the notion of an animal kingdom dominated by humans in favor of a modern society built and populated exclusively by animals.

“John got very excited about us doing it and totally supported us, but he made it very clear that we had to do something different. We couldn’t just rely on what had come before,” says Byron Howard, who shared directing duties with Rich Moore on Zootopia. As Moore puts it, “There have been films about animals in an animal word, animals in a human world, but not animals in a modern world.”

That’s precisely the charm of a film like Zootopia, which imagines different animal neighborhoods to accommodate different cultures and climates. Sahara Square provides a warm, dry home for desert animals, while Tundratown keeps the temperature cool for snow-loving mammals. Bunnyburrow is a bit like an outer-ring suburb and not nearly as diverse a part of town as the humid Rain Forest District. Little Rodentia, described by Byron Howard as a “two-foot-high Greenwich Village” provides a home for city-smart mice, but the most urban setting is Savanna Central—a meeting point for animals from every district.

The concept set off an 18-month research phase, including several fact-finding missions to get an up-close look at the animated characters’ real-world counterparts. “We went to the Animal Kingdom Lodge down in Florida, to Wild Animal Park in San Diego,” says art director Cory Loftis. “We got to see some cheetahs run. We got really close to the animals, a lot closer than a Google image search or a book, but you’re still seeing animals in a zoo setting.” To remedy that situation, the production sent team members to Kenya for two weeks in order to get a better feel for animals’ movements in the wild. “That trip changed a lot of what I thought the movie should be,” says Renato dos Anjos, head of animation. “Just being around animals in their own space, doing their own thing, and interacting with each other and different species—it’s absolutely amazing.”

“We really got to see how they interact with each other, little quirks in their behavior. All the departments took something away from it—animation, lighting, environments,” says Loftis. That attention to detail made it back to the studio; features like shadows or the way trees sway in the wind might be merely background to anyone but the most eagle-eyed viewers, but compounded they enhance the film’s overall atmosphere. Viewers might not notice it, but they’ll certain feel it. That’s crucial for a film that hopes to create a fully immersive, functioning society inhabited by animals.

“The premise is only funny if you believe in it,” says Matthias Lechner, the art director of environments on Zootopia. That’s why, while many of the film’s most charming visual cues are taken from the wild, designers also incorporated references to cities around the world—to make the setting relatable to the human audience. “We looked at Dubai for Sahara Square and incorporated some Las Vegas into it, but we never wanted anything to feel too much like one specific place,” explains screenwriter and co-director Jared Bush. In other words, Zootopia is meant to evoke the real world rather than mimic it. It also opens the door for hidden gags throughout the film, like newsstands that carry publications such as Gnusweek, Ellephant, and Vanity Fur.

For those gags to work, however, the production team had to solve a surprisingly complicated problem. “We quickly found that scale was going to be an issue in the world of Zootopia,” says Dave Komorowski, head of characters and tech animation. “Our smallest critter is a mouse and our tallest animal is a giraffe. It would take at least 97 mice to reach the top of a giraffe’s head. We needed to create a world that would work for both of them. We needed to come up with cars that would work for mice as well as giraffes.” Directors Howard and Moore decided to approach the problem as pragmatically as they could, consulting with designers familiar with ADA regulations to help conceive how the logistics of scale would work in a place like Zootopia. In the end they were so successful that they had too many environments for the final cut, and some—Outback Islands, Meadowlands (the home of the sheep), and a nocturnal district for bats and their nighttime friends—had to go.

Setting alone doesn’t make a movie. Anchoring the film are the characters of Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwyn), a rookie cop and the first bunny in the history of the Zootopia Police Department. Like our modern society, Zootopia’s animal world is full of stereotypes—an elephant’s memory is infallible and foxes can’t be trusted—but Judy’s not the sort of bunny to succumb to bigotry. Judy meets her match in Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a smooth-talking fox with all the traits of an experienced con artist. “In Nick’s mind, you are who you are: he’s a fox and everyone is going to look at him as sort of a sneaky guy, and no one is ever going to change their perception of that, so why try? Judy believes anyone can be anything at all,” says Bush. Despite their mismatch, a series of events brings Judy and Nick together in an unlikely partnership that will take them through Zootopia’s many neighborhoods in search of justice. “Zootopia sprang from the film’s two main characters, and from the desire to have a predator and prey buddy movie,” says Howard. “What is the world that is going to support these two teaming up? Every decision that’s made in the film branches out from that relationship,”

“When we really try to think about what’s memorable about Disney characters, it’s not the character design but the strong personality those animal characters have,” says Loftis. “You remember what a faithful friend Baloo was, what a heroic father figure Mufasa was, what a sweet child Dumbo was. I wanted to make sure we could get those same memorable characters from Zootopia. I personally always like having them recognizable as Disney. I like having that legacy all the way back to Snow White, that history of Disney characters. I didn’t want them to lose all of that, but at the same time we wanted to have fun creating something new—you don’t want to spend time making something that has already been done. So that personality from the old Disney characters always creeps in, but we tried to invent new shapes, new body types, new ways of moving and acting.”

Judy and Nick are joined by a quirky ensemble that includes the tough Buffalo head of police, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), the loquacious Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), and the socially conscious pop superstar Gazelle (Shakira). Although these denizens of Zootopia share a lineage with Donald Duck, they have one burden that older Disney animals haven’t had to worry about. “In Zootopia they have to wear pants,” says Loftis. “These are characters that get up every morning, get a coffee, and ride the bus to work. It’s a real world, so our characters need to look convincing in those pants. That led to our first tough design choice. Clothes need to feel natural.”

That’s easier said than done when you’re animating a quadruped that’s evolved into an upright walking, talking, smartphone-staring citizen of Zootopia. The production team embraced that challenge, however, even excluding apes in the film since they share so many traits with humans. Other human qualities, perhaps not our best, do creep up in scenes throughout the film—heady issues like stereotypes and prejudice. “In some ways, at least in these types of movies, I’m writing for my kids,” says Phil Johnston, who shares a screenwriting credit on the film. “But if I’m going to sit through a movie with my kids, I’d like to be entertained myself. I don’t believe in talking down to kids; we don’t give them enough credit for understanding deeper themes.” It’s what makes the Judy and Nick pairing in the film so captivating for a family film, their ability to accept their differences and look past them as they work together for a mutual goal. Rich Moore encapsulates that theme succinctly when describing the film’s central message: “You define you. The world has an opinion of who you are, but you define yourself—not the world.”

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