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How Disney’s Animated ‘Zootopia’ Became the Galvanizing Movie of 2016

Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore reflect on the zeitgeist-grabbing, Oscar front-runner and its sequel prospects.





Zootopia” directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore are still flabbergasted by the global success of their animated Oscar frontrunner. But as difficult as it was to believably create an anthropomorphic society shared by predator and prey alike, it was even harder to convincingly capture the zeitgeist of fear, prejudice and inclusion.

“It was really a juicy thing to talk about, but could we do that with an animated film, should we do that with an animated film?” asked Howard, who pitched and created “Zootopia.”

“And the more we researched it and the more we talked to our experts on bias and discrimination, we realized this was an incredible thing we should be looking at,” Howard told IndieWire. “Disney films especially are good at that. Our producer, Clark Spencer, reminded us that ‘The Lion King’ gave parents and children a wonderful opportunity to talk about death. And I remember being shocked when seeing Bambi’s mother die. It was a huge wake-up call when seeing it as a kid.”

READ MORE: Animating Animals: ‘Zootopia,’ ‘Sing,’ ‘Finding Dory,’ ‘Trolls’ and More Vie for Oscar

It was not only a breakthrough witnessing predator and prey sharing the same watering hole on their research trip in Africa, but also learning about bias from World Trust founder Dr. Shakti Butler, who explained that only an inciting incident will force society to confront its darkest fears and prejudices.


“You can’t tell stories around this theme too often and it’s a discussion that parents are having with their kids, thanks to this movie,” added Moore, who’s currently helming “Wreck-It Ralph 2” (March 9, 2018) by exploring online gaming.

“It’s like a modern fable,” Moore told IndieWire. “We want to entertain in a way that has some depth to it. We want to tell the truth and look the audience in the eye. But we don’t make message movies. That’s what made this one a real challenge: the manipulation of this fear of the other, people that aren’t like us.”

The secret was emphasizing sharp wit and channeling the theme of bias through newbie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). And, fortunately, the filmmakers flipped the protagonist from Wilde to Hopps, which made it more thematically meaningful.

“And what a great villain Bellwether was [the assistant mayor and neglected sheep] to talk about the fear mongering and manipulation that we see all the time,” added Howard, who believed this could best be handled through animation.


“The fact that animation allows people to let go of the barriers that we see with just watching humans on screen. helped them see themselves in Nick or Judy and understand their flaws and how to deal with them,” Howard said.

“And what was great was going around the world and talking to people who saw something they could relate to on a personal or political level. Some people asked us about immigration or gender or equality issues,” added Howard.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of interest in a “Zootopia” sequel, which is fine by Howard and Moore, provided they can craft a worthy follow-up for Hopps and Wilde.

READ MORE: From ‘Zootopia’ to ‘Moana,’ How This Year’s Animation Race Has Embraced Female Empowerment

“There are those [viewers] that believe there is no romance and others that say they have to be together,” Moore said. “From our end, it’s a great world to play in with a wonderful set of characters, and I can’t see why we wouldn’t jump back into that world.”

Added Howard: “The fact that it was contemporary allowed us to discuss so many things that we don’t normally get to talk about with animated films. It gives me a lot of faith in the audience around the world and we know they can handle more than Hollywood gives them credit for.”

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