At one of the earliest pitch meetings, Zootopia director Rich Moore said the movie was like L.A. Confidential meets Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World. "I used to love those books as a kid," he says. "They were always sort of light but would tell a serious story in that cute little setting."
Moore and his fellow director Byron Howard came through Dallas on a press tour for Zootopia, Disney's latest animated film. It's being pitched as the studio's first "talking animal" movie in some time, but it goes deeper than that. This cute and funny family film manages to address some very serious (and very current) issues like prejudice and bullying while rarely losing its lighthearted charm.
"We never want to make message movies and we never want to make soft, fluffy, shallow movies," Moore says. "It has to be a balance somewhere in the middle."
"It should be about something. It should have deep roots into something we can all relate to. And this movie is no different. It didn’t start out as something where we said, ‘We have an agenda that we want to get across, that we want to preach.’ It was never like that. It really came out of the characters’ story."
That story centers around Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a young rabbit who has dreams of being a police officer despite opposition from everybody around her -- including her own parents. But its the setting, the city of Zootopia itself, that drives most of the discussion.
"We weren’t content with just filling the city with these animals that we know are enemies. And these questions would come up like, ‘Why isn’t the bear eating the rabbit? How did they get to this point?’ And that, very early on, became something cool to talk about. What was the social contract [the animals] created long ago, and what if that broke down?"
When I asked Moore and Howard whether they themselves were hunters or prey, they decided that wrangling all the various elements of this movie forced them to become hunters -- an analogy they quickly began talking over each other in order to develop.
Moore: "In making the movie you're kind of a hunter."
Howard: "You're hunting the story."
Moore: "You've got to take down the story and get it manageable. We were tiny weasels grabbing the neck--"
Howard: "We were arctic shrews taking down a mammoth."
A wonderful all-star cast helps get all those tough questions answered. Howard says that with Zootopia they managed to do something almost unheard of in casting: They got everybody that they wanted.
Howard says that for Tangled, which he also directed, Disney auditioned about 300 people for Rapunzel (a role that went to Mandy Moore) and about 150 for Flynn (Zachary Levi), in part because they weren't sure who they were going to be able to get. "For this movie," he says of Zootopia, "we got to make our dream cast list.
"Jason [Bateman] is one of the only guys nowadays that really does that sort of charming, Cary Grant, smartest-guy-in-the-room, sarcastic guy that you love thing, and he was number one on our list along with Ginnifer [Goodwin]. Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Shakira ... All these people were our first choices, and that never happens. We got very, very lucky on this movie."
As self-proclaimed film buffs, they drew from a lot of classics when creating the characters and world of Zootopia. Howard mentioned Lethal Weapon, Starsky and Hutch and the noir films of Howard Hawks, just to name a few influences. But it was also important to them to make a film that was contemporary, unlike Disney period pieces such as Frozen and Tangled.
"I think as filmmakers we reflect the world around us," Moore says. "We wanted this to feel like a mirror image of our world today, not from years ago or some other moment in time. We wanted it to feel relevant."
The result is a story that has Breaking Bad and Godfather references, tigers that use smart phones and a pop star (Shakira) that has her hit songs playing on giant screens all over the city. But the things that will give it real staying power are the themes that dive deep into our flaws as a society. And to see those for what they are, sometimes you have to get a little dark.
"It’s a funny hybrid movie," Howard says, "where you take that sweet-on-the-surface world and you put this dark and gritty underbelly in there. It gives you something really unique."