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Eighteen months ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Zootopia, which opens in theaters Friday, was a very different-looking movie. The world of the pic looked “ugly” until filmmakers decided to make a major change, substituting one of the main character’s point-of-view for another.
Zootopia is set in an imaginative world, full of anthropomorphic animals who live in districts such as Tundra Town (look for some Easter Eggs from Frozen), Sahara Square (inspired by a research trip to Africa) and Little Rodentia (a gated community so that its tiny residents won’t get stepped on). The film centers on a surprising friendship that develops between two natural enemies: Nick Wilde, a slick fox (voiced by Jason Bateman), and Lt. Judy Hops, a rabbit who want to be a police officer (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin).
Originally, the movie’s focus was Nick’s story. But according to the Disney animation vets who directed it — Rich Moore, an Oscar nominee for Wreck-It Ralph, and Byron Howard, an Oscar nominee for Bolt — as work on the film developed, that became problematic. So, just a year and a half ago, they decided to tell the story through the eyes of Goodwin’s Hops instead.
“Nick was always the con man, and Judy was this optimistic, pure of heart character,” Howard says, describing the rabbit as akin to Frank Capra’s protagonists “who believes their truths to the core, but are surrounded by characters that are super-cynical and always pushing on those beliefs.” The question is, will the ideals of that character survive?
“We love that about those movies and we took an element of that and put that into Judy’s very smart, modern character,” he continues. “Next to this confirmed cynic, Jason Bateman’s character, it’s great chemistry for a buddy movie.”
While the story overhaul was dramatic, it wasn’t unusual for a Disney or Pixar movie, since filmmakers at the two studios, overseen by chief creative officer John Lasseter, are encouraged to rethink and revise their stories during the storyboarding and editing process in advance of the actual animation production.
The makers of Pixar’s Academy Award-winning Inside Out, for example, have described how they made a major change in their film when they realized that its story needed to be about emotion/character Sadness.
In the case of Zootopia, the directors said they were already having internal screenings and were getting ready to go into production when they had their eureka moment, leading them to abandon Nick’s point of view.
“We realized through Nick’s eyes, the city of Zootopia felt ugly,” explains Moore. “We had a world that we wanted the audience to embrace, but a main character that doesn’t like it and feels oppressed by it. If he’s our ‘in’ to this world, are we confusing our audience? It wasn’t really the story we wanted to tell.”
The story fell into place when they switched its focus to Hops. The movie follows her experience as she arrives in Zootopia with that feeling of coming to a big city for the first time. “It’s almost through the eyes of a naif at first,” says Moore. “And soon [as reality sets in] you question if you made a huge mistake [in making such as move to a city]. That was using the world and our characters to their best.”
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