In November 2014, the team behind Disney’s Zootopia had a very bad day. After years of development and production, they realized a huge aspect of their movie didn’t work. There were two main characters, one primary and one secondary— and they had to be flipped for the film to make sense.
In Zootopia, which hits theaters March 4, a young bunny named Judy Hopps leaves home for a job as a police officer in the big city of the title. There, she must team up with a con-man fox named Nick Wilde to solve a crime. Nick, voiced by Jason Bateman, is jaded, sarcastic, and believes everyone is exactly who they are. Judy, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is exactly the opposite. She’s cheery, optimistic and believes anyone can be whatever they want.
For years, Nick was the focus on the film, with Hopps playing a crucial, but secondary role. But on that fateful November day, a little over a year before the film’s release, director Byron Howard realized they had to make the switch.
“We’re telling a story about bias, and when you have the Nick character starting the movie, through his eyes the city was already broken,” Howard said. “He didn’t like Zootopia.”
Hopps, on the other hand, did. She loved it. And suddenly, everything became obvious.
“We asked ‘What are we saying with the movie?’ If we’re telling this movie about bias—something that is everywhere and in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not—the character that’s going to help us tell that message is Judy, an innocent, [who comes] from a very supportive environment where she thinks everyone is beautiful, everyone gets along,” Howard said. “Then let Nick, this character who knows the truth about the world, bop up against her and they start to educate each other. When we flipped that, it was a major flip, but it worked so much better.”
In retrospect, the flip may seem like the most simple thing ever. Have the positive character be the main one. But the reason something like that doesn’t happen immediately is that movies like Zootopia happen in an insanely organic, fluid way. When the film was first pitched, for example, there wasn’t much more than the idea of talking animals living together in a city. There was no story, no characters, just an idea, followed by an approval, and then the research begins. The hope is, through this research process, a story is arrived at organically, which is what happened.
It started with looking at animals behaviors, futuristic ideas for cities, and then a trip to Africa lit up a figurative lightbulb. “We looked at this situation around the watering hole,” Howard said. “Predators and prey are behaving because they both need something, water, and everyone’s cool. They’re kind of looking at each other cautiously, but people are behaving. That’s very much like our city. People are different in cities, and they have to get together to live, and what does that mean?”
What it meant was, the story was going to be one about bias and stereotypes, told through a big adventure. And though the decision to make Judy the main character in that story came very late, some of people responsible for the film’s story admit that she was always stealing the limelight, from the beginning.
“Even when Nick was the main character, Hopps kept pushing through,” said head of editorial, Fabienne Rawley. “She’s the character she is. She just kept being the main character. And we kept saying that we wanted Nick to be the main character. And sort of because of that, forcing a round peg in a square hole sort of thing, she just came through. And finally we’re like, ‘Fine! Go do it.’ So then you start again.”
For a normal person, changing and scrapping so much hard work would probably be seen as a huge defeat. But this is Disney and, according to the people there, everyone embraced it
“We knew it was going to be a lot of work, but immediately hearing the idea no one said like, ‘Oh no! I’ve got to keep this thing.’ It was very much the opposite,” said co-director Jared Bush. “It was ‘This is really exciting. This is going to help the movie immeasurably. We just need to execute it, and we’re running out of time to do it.’ But it’s an amazing opportunity to make this movie really special.”
In changing the movie, Howard, Bush, Rawley and others found that they were better able to incorporate the film’s message of inclusion and harmony, along with a satisfying story.
“We never wanted this to be a message movie,” said Howard. “We always wanted it to be this great piece of entertainment, great emotion, great storytelling, but it’s never, ever supposed to be in-your-face with the message of the movie. Just letting Judy learn that and seeing her progress grow and grow, it became sort of a personal story between the two of them and helped us in a huge way.”
The other thing that helped in a huge way—especially when in executing such a major change—was adding Rich Moore as another director. When Zootopia was starting production, Moore was working on his own movie, Wreck-It Ralph, which was released in 2012. He then went to work on something we won’t see for several years, before his phone rang with the head of Disney Pictures, John Lasseter, asking him to come on board.
“When you’re in production for years, there are these kind of gear shifts that you can feel,” Moore said. “‘Okay, that’s ramping up. It’s going up another level.’ And [Zootopia] was just ready to go up another one. It was like jumping onto a fast-moving train.”
Moore’s main task at the beginning was helping Howard manage all the changes that switching lead characters from Nick to Judy meant for the movie as a whole, and Howard was happy for the help.
“It’s great to have partners on these films,” Howard said. “It’s great to have someone to do a gut check with.”
Oddly, while everyone making Zootopia has no problem balancing and checking each other, even when it becomes incredibly difficult, the president of Disney Animation Andrew Millstein claimed there’s one place they never ever look to make sure they’re on the right track.
“Well, we really don’t follow the competition all that much,” Millstein said. “When Byron and Jared wanted to make this film, talking animals in an animal world, we didn’t say, ‘Oh, Blue Sky is making that, Illumination is making one.’ There are so many ways to tell a talking-animal story, and what better challenge is there to differentiate yourself from whatever anybody else is making? So our standard is really a self-referential standard, cause we want to make it great. And let the chips fall where they may.”