The Message In 'Zootopia' Came From Story & Character, Not Politics

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.

zootopia concept art tame collar

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.


The Solution: Follow the Bunny, Not the Fox

So the solution was to get rid of the "tame collars" and switch the perspective so that Judy Hopps was the main character.

And what if we let her uncover the discrimination in her case, and in herself? Let's not let it from frame one, there's discrimination in the world. The story which felt all kinds of crooked at that time, almost instantaneously had a spine that straightened and suddenly the world felt like a world we could relate to, like our world. It didn't feel like a movie dystopian world. Then the world became like what it was always imagined to be, that it felt like Miami or LA or New York or Paris or Rome, a big vibrant melting pot that you can find good and you can find bad. Not a place that had an agenda to keep one group down from the beginning. It's a case of the story saying "this is what I really want to be." When the story does that, it's an organic thing and you have to follow that.

Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Big Changes Late in the Process

This decision came fairly late in the process, as animators had been working on the film for almost a year with only 17 months until it needed to be completed. This is how Rich Moore got pulled into the project, directing side-by-side with Byron Howard. Moore was originally helping to develop and oversee the film as part of Disney Animation's Story Group, but with a huge change in direction they needed to bring on a second director to get the job done. And that's when John Lasseter asked Moore to drop the animated film he was developing and come on to help get Zootopia to the finish line.

And of course I said yes, because that's what we do at the studio. And then comes the tough process of sharing with our crew, and this is hundreds of people who have been working on this and we're making a big change in the story. And some of the work that these people had worked maybe a year on may not be in the film. But that's how much we put the story first. Other studios may have said "we are in this deep already, it's a little late to decide you have the wrong main character for this one, make that version." But that's not what we do. If it makes it a better movie, we go for it. And I think the movie is a much much better movie having gone through that process.


Are They Worried About Possible Controversy Over the Zootopia Message?

At my roundtable interview with the filmmakers, another journalist asked if the directors were worried about the possibility that conservative press might attack the film like they did Pixar's WALL-E. Not only does this film has a big sociopolitical message but the first character refusing to serve someone is an elephant. Moore responded:

I say bring it on. I feel like we told a story from the heart that comes from a genuine place and I know it doesn't come from a political standpoint or an axe to grind or agenda to push. If someone is prone to say it's intended any other way then thats there opinion and you can't control what other people think. But I think we know where the movie comes from, and it comes from a place of authentic storytelling. If people want to watch a movie about a fox and a rabbit becoming friends and finding similarities rather than differences are a good thing and turn that into an evil agenda pushing practice, I don't know what to say: go head.

Meanwhile, director Byron Howard believes Zootopia isn't a message movie.

I don't think we like message movies either. I don't like movies telling us the way to think, the way to live is. And I think what we tried to do with it is let the character's journey be communicated to the audience. Judy Hopps is this wonderful good hearted character — she's very Frank Capra, and really intends the best for the world, she wants to make a difference with her life and wants to help people but she has a flaw that she doesn't realize. And really its a maturity story, she gets to grow in the story — she sees stuff in herself that she didn't realize was there before and at the end of the movie she doesn't say the world is very Pollyanna, she says the world is a very complicated place but change really starts within, and with yourself. That self reflection is what really saves it for me from being a message movie.

Agreed. Zootopia hits theaters in the U.S. this Friday.