Disney’s latest animated animal adventure, Zootopia, has a lot to say about human interaction. Dominic Corry talks to the creators.

Walt Disney Animation Studios is on a roll. Although Pixar is owned by Disney these days, so the studios are under the same roof and both answerable to Pixar creative head John Lasseter, Walt Disney Animation has for several decades stood in the shadow of Pixar's amazing achievements.

Not any more.

The big turnaround began with films like the ridiculous (and enduring) success of 2013's Frozen and continued with 2014's Wreck-It Ralph. And now Zootopia has already been deemed an instant classic thanks to its rapturous reception overseas.

Flashback: August 2015. TimeOut has ventured deep into a semi-industrial section of Los Angeles known as Tujunga, where Walt Disney Animation Studios have set up shop for all things Zootopia, which is deep in production.


All 400 people working on the film, mostly artists and animators, are housed in the one building, which is very rare for feature animation. The common room area has a virtual reality set-up the creatives use to unwind. A Jedi Academy lightsaber group practices on Tuesdays and Fridays.

"It's our own little Zootopia," says Rich Moore, one of Zootopia's two directors, a veteran of The Simpsons who last helmed 2014's Wreck It Ralph.

The on-screen Zootopia is a huge city where animals of all kinds interact in a (relatively) civilised manner. Animals that walk upright and wear pants used to be a staple of Disney animation, but that hasn't been seen for a while.

"For a long time we've been trying to get an animal movie going here at Disney Animation," says Zootopia's other director, Byron Howard (Tangled). "We hadn't really done one in a long time, an all-animal world like The Lion King."

The film's initial pitch to Lasseter couldn't have gone better, according to Howard.

"John has such an enthusiasm for anthropomorphic animal movies, where animals walk around in clothes. He was so excited about the project he lifted his hands in the air like he was presenting baby Simba [from The Lion King]. He was very very excited. He said 'Well we've done a lot of animal films and we need to make this distinct from all the animal films that came before'."

One way the filmmakers achieved that was to give the film a genuinely empowering message about societal division. Zootopia is a heck of a lot of fun, to be sure, but the potent themes shining through seem to have really struck a chord with audiences.

The bearer of all this thematic heft is a very cute bunny named Judy Hopps, voiced by Once Upon A Time's Ginnifer Goodwin. In one of the film's many humorous allusions to human society, we are informed that only bunnies can describe each other as "cute".

"Judy is the character through whose eyes we learn about Zootopia," Moore tells TimeOut.

"She is a bunny from a place called Bunnyburrow which is on the outskirts. She is someone who lives the motto that the city of Zootopia is the place where anyone can be anything and she has this dream of being a police officer - one of Zootopia's finest. And through her journey we're going to her test that theory.

"She will be met by opposition because sometimes when we feel we want something, the rest of the world doesn't agree. And because in Zootopia, the police officers are rhinos and hippos and elephants and bears."

The film's other main character is a fox named Nick Wilde, voiced with artful cynicism by Jason Bateman (Arrested Development).

"Personifying the flipside of Judy's mindset is Nick the fox," continues Moore. "He's a jaded Zootopian. He's grown up in Zootopia and he is of the mind that we are who we are and you can't change that. 'I'm a sly fox. You're a dumb bunny. You are never going to be a police officer.'"

A large part of Zootopia's charm comes from the contrast between Judy and Nick, rendering the film something of a mismatched buddy comedy. "The two of them have such great chemistry together," says Moore.

Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman in a scene from the animated film Zootopia. Photo / AP
Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman in a scene from the animated film Zootopia. Photo / AP

"Ginnifer is so pure of heart, but under this tough exterior, and Jason has that ascerbic, sarcastic sense of humour, but it comes from the heart.

"He can say terrible things in humour, but you love him for it. In any great buddy movie you need those two different mindsets fighting against each other and that's really kind of the engine that drives the movie. That's where you find the comedy, that's where you find the heart, the drama."

Another way the film sets itself apart from previous animated animal tales is by lending the various characters traits they have brought with them from the wild.

Walt Disney Animation Studios' Zootopia features a vast world where humans never existed. Photo / Disney
Walt Disney Animation Studios' Zootopia features a vast world where humans never existed. Photo / Disney

"We didn't want to create a movie where it felt like humans walking around in animal suits," says Howard. "We wanted to make sure these felt like animals. So we went to visit Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, which is one the best zoological parks in the world, and we had the best experts come in and tell us about animal behaviour and about what makes the animals comfortable so we can create environments that they would be comfortable within.

"So when you see Zootopia, the plaza isn't just random animals all spread out, they move in herds. They behave like real animals do.

"We tried to bring something unique to each animal."

What: Zootopia
Where and when: In cinemas today.