Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! As well as gazelle, elephants, buffalo, sheep, otter, sloths, jaguar, moose, fox and rabbits just to name a few of the dozens of species of animals that call Zootopia home.
Walt Disney Animation Studios' 55th animated film Zootopia is a mammal metropolis where various animals live, thrive and survive. “It's a huge cast,” proclaims Zootopia co-director Rich Moore. “We created 64 different species, requiring different fur grooms and costumes,” Moore calculating that there are tens-of-thousands of characters in the animated feature.
Moore and co-director Byron Howard are responsible for some of the contemporary animation to come out of the Mouse House in years including Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Bolt, Chicken Little, and Mulan.
It is no wonder that these two, along with a third co-director Jared Bush, were charged as the zookeepers on this project. They all share a passion for animation and in particular Disney animation from the time they were young. In a recent interview, Moore shared his love of animation from his formative years. “My passion for animation started when I was five and going to see The Jungle Book. That was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. And the whole ride home I was just transfixed. I was like I don't know how they make that stuff. I don't know if it's a job but I know I want to be a part of that.”
Howard recalls being in college and wanting to learn about animation. He wrote a letter to legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and “they wrote me back, which was crazy to get these type-written letters. That is great I thought to get this advice proving they were people who really love what they do and want to pass it on.”
Moore notes that he and his collaborators on the film grew up on classic Disney animation and that didn't get lost on the animators. Howard adds “I think that is why our animators on Zootopia geeked out on this film because the studio hadn't done a talking animal film in a long time.” To make sure they got it right, Disney sent part of the animation crew to Africa to observe real wildlife and to spend time in the jungle to find out what real animals are like and how they could bring those characteristics back to the drawing table.
The co-directors also credit the legacy of Disney design sense for influencing their zoo-tropolis. “Rich's love of the animated Robin Hood, which was from the 1970's is true anthropomorphic animal genre,” notes Howard. Moore says he believes when Robin Hood was made the animators were at the top of their animation game “like they had been for decades. They were so refined in the choices they were making, bringing human characteristics to the creations and not losing what was amazing about the actual animals.” The pair credits the animators' observation and playfulness with creating some of the most entertaining animation of the 1970's.
Unlike some other animated tales, Zootopia is an original story written by Jared Bush, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee of Frozen. It is ironic that the writers of Zootopia may have borrowed a page from Frozen about halfway into the production when they dramatically changed the course of the story. Howard says sudden plot changes have also occurred in films like Big Hero 6 and Tangled. “At one point we had the fox, Jason Bateman's character as the lead about a year from being done. We decided the film would be stronger and the audience would understand the city better if we flopped the main character to introduce you through Judy Hopps, Gennifer Goodwin's character.”
Moore chimes in that “Judy is more optimistic and more about idealizing the motto of the city. Introducing her this way allows the audience to see and understand what the city is all about.”
“In Zootopia, anyone can be anything,” is the motto of the movie. It bears a striking resemblance to what Walt Disney reportedly said decades ago, “if you can dream it, you can do it.” Howard says rabbit Judy Hopps' “wonderful pure Eagle Scout core” drives her to do something good in a world she doesn't quite realize how tough things are going to be out there. But yet she is able to accomplish anything she sets out to do.
The themes explored in Zootopia are not taken for granted, rather the duo feels honored and privileged to be part of the Walt Disney family. “It's amazing,” Howard reveals to be part of this rich history of the Disney Studios. “We have the best jobs in the world and to be able to walk across the street to the Animation Research Library and hold in your hands, drawings that are 80 to 90 years old, drawings of Snow White with coffee stains on them from when the animators created them way back when, is truly incredible to be part of that.”
Zootopia pays homage to the past while looking forward to the future at Walt Disney Animation. The film, with its cast of thousands, opens in theaters Friday, March 4th.