Saturday, June 17, 2017

Zootopia

Co-director of Zootopia, Byron Howard, has been with Disney for quite some time. He first served as an inbetweener for the Pocahontas production, then animator for Mulan, before becoming supervising animator for the short John Henry, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear. He then graduated to co-directing, working on Bolt and Tangled before working on Zootopia. He was pitching ideas for a new movie to John Lasseter, and three of them happened to be about anthropomorphic animals. The first was an adaption of The Three Musketeers, the second, a 60's themed story about a mad scientist cat that turned kids into animals, and a bounty hunter pug in space. None of those ideas worked out, but the animal theme was consistent. Howard wanted to create a movie in the same vein as Robin Hood. It's a story filled with animals, but the animals aren't living in the human world, its their own world. Lasseter encouraged him to make something that kind of combined the 60's theme from the mad scientist cat story with talking animals. Out of that, Howard pitched the story titled Savage Seas, a spy film centered around a rabbit named "Jack Savage" who was somewhat like James Bond. Jared Bush joined on to help write the story, and they tried to flesh out more of the details of the movie. They soon learned that the most interesting part of their proposed movie was the city that was filled with animals, and over time the 60's were dropped for present day, and the spy story was changed to a police procedural. Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps were created at this point, but both were cops from the get-go and Nick was the main character, not Judy. They had started work on that version of the story, but again, they changed it to reflect on Judy Hopps instead of Nick Wilde, as that would create a better dynamic. What we ended up with was a story about a bunny cop that has to solve a mystery with the help of a grifter fox.

The animators took a lot of care in creating a world that is populated by talking animals. Zootopia is laid out in different districts, for the most part, and contains areas that any animal would be comfortable in. Like all films with animals, animators traveled the world to get inspiration on how to properly animate the inhabitants of Zootopia. Zootopia itself was modeled after several different major cities, including New York City, Shanghai, Paris, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Brasilia, and Las Vegas. Animators had to create a whole new piece of software to create the fur for all the animals, as they hadn't had a CG film with animals since 2008's Bolt. The IT engineers created iGroom, which gave character designers precise control over the brushing, shaping and shading of fur and made it possible to create a variety of eccentric character styles for each animal.


The cast of Zootopia is headed by Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps, and Jason Bateman as Nick Wilde. They could not have cast this better. Bateman plays a smart aleck very well, and Goodwin plays Hopps well as a somewhat naive, yet determined, cop. The rest of the cast includes Idris Elba (he is in everything these days!) as Chief Bogo, Jenny Slate as Dawn Bellwether, Bonnie Hunt as Bonnie Hopps, JK Simmons as Leodore Lionheart (pssst...he's a lion), Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Otterton, Alan Tudyk as Duke Weaselton, and Shakira as Gazelle. There are two things I really like about the naming of characters in this movie. The first is that the missing otter, Mr. Otterton, is named Emmitt. If you happened to watch obscure Christmas specials from the 70's, you may recognize the name as an homage to Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, a Jim Henson TV special from 1977. The second thing is Alan Tudyk's character being named Duke Weaselton, an obvious joke about another character Tudyk voiced in Frozen, the Duke of Weselton. 


Zootopia continues Disney Animation's recent domination, honestly putting Pixar to shame. Considering that John Lasseter runs both, I'm sure he's doing just fine. Financially, they are both doing great, but critically, I feel that Pixar hasn't put their best foot forward in quite a few years. Inside Out is their only certifiable hit critically, but it's a movie that is surrounded by sub-par sequels and a dinosaur movie nobody watched. Both Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur were not even nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Zootopia has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been praised as an important movie in the Disney canon for its message (more on that later). Financially, the movie grossed $1.024 billion dollars against a $150 million budget. I'd say they made quite a bit of money. It is currently sitting at 5th for highest animated film gross (not adjusted for inflation) just below Finding Dory, Toy Story 3, Minions, and the mighty Frozen. Zootopia went on to win Best Animated Feature Film from the Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, the Annie Awards, and the Critic's Choice Awards. It was nominated at the BAFTA's but lost to Kubo and the Two Strings. 

While not a perfect allegory for how we are dealing with bigotry and prejudice in present day, Zootopia attempts to show what can happen when our fears get the better of us. In present day Zootopia, mammals all live in harmony, but it wasn't always this way. In the distant past, predators hunted and ate their prey, hearkening back to a more savage time for animal kind. Times have changed an all seem to live in peace, though it doesn't take much for a large amount of the population, animals that would traditionally be considered prey, to begin to fear predators again when they think they are going feral. Things get worse when it is incorrectly surmised that it is in the predator's DNA to be savage and violent, and therefore they could snap at any moment. It is only when Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde uncover a larger conspiracy that everyone realizes how silly they've been acting, including Judy herself. This film has humor, mystery, action, and some of the most nuanced characters to come out of Disney in a while. This is definitely a new Disney favorite of my family and I couldn't recommend it more. 

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