Posted on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
When Disney Animation Studios began work on Zootopia, they didn’t know the film would pack the sophisticated social political message thats being praised by critics. In fact, they didn’t even know that the Ginnifer Goodwin-voiced bunny character Judy Hopps would be the main character — Jason Bateman‘s fox character Nick Wilde was originally supposed be be the lead. Learn why the lead characters in Disney’s 55th animated feature were swapped very late in the process, find out how the message in Zootopia came from a research trip to Africa and hear the filmmakers explain why it comes from the place of character and story, not politics.
The Message Came From the Inception of the Story, on an African Research Trip
The message at the core of Zootopia was born out of an early research trip to Africa. Director Byron Howard explains how the idea “came out very organically.”
It started with our research trips to… Africa, an experience where our first camp was thirty feet from a watering hole and we noticed lions would come in and drink right next to gazelles and Zebras which they normally eat. No one was misbehaving, no one was biting each other or attacking — it was a very interesting social dynamic. They come in, they drink, they look at each other side-by-side, and then they kind of part ways. And human cities are kind of the same thing, you have the collective of different groups who don’t always see eye to eye but they have to find a way to get along for the essentials. And that led us to a huge discovery where we talked to animal experts and they told us that, and we say this in the movie too, that 90% of animals are prey animals and the remaining 10% are predators — thats an automatic majority minority, and what an interesting thing to think, even those these animals [in Zootopia] have evolved and created this incredible civilization, what if they still held on to some of those sublimated fears and mistrust that have been around for thousands of years. Its very similar to what human beings experience. and thats where all of this came from.
But as most Disney animated films, the story evolved as they worked on it.
A Very Different Zootopia: Nick Wilde Was the Lead and the “Tame Collars”
In fact, the version of Zootopia they began animating was very different, with a much more in-your-face message. Director Rich Moore explained the original vision of the story:
Byron had imagined that Nick was the main character and this was a story about a predator living in an animal world that looked badly on predators. The prey were kind of the more favored animals in the city, and he had a really bad outlook on the city. The city was very oppressive and they went to lengths to try to control the predators. They had to wear these collars that would give them a shock if they had old instinctual urges like they got mad or excited.
A little more in-your-face, right? You can see the shock collar in the early concept art above. Well, Moore went on to explain why it wasn’t working:
So we were presenting a world that was very dystopian right from the top and it didn’t feel like a place where we wanted to be. We instead wanted Nick to just get out of the city. But we were trying to make this version work, because it felt like, there’s a story there. But it got to the point where it was very hard to root for the city and we don’t want to create worlds that we don’t like, that we want our characters not to live in. It’s not what we do as a studio. It’s not that that story couldn’t work, it’s just not the one we wanted to tell. So there came a point where we said, “well, the problem us Nick is out main character and he’s steering this whole thing in a direction that is making it very hard to dig out from underneath and even the sidekick character Judy feels almost complicit in something horrible in the city because she’s the Man. She believes that its a good thing that they wear these collars.
How did they fix the movie? Find out, after the jump.