Walt Disney Animation Studios began work on Oscar contender Zootopia five years ago, but in a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer admitted that they never dreamed that it would emerge as one of the year's most socially relevant films.
Zootopia - which topped $1 billion at the global box office and is now targeting the Oscars - follows aspiring police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and is set in a fun, colorful metropolis where a melting pot of animals co-exist in harmony. But beneath this happy exterior, the film's antagonist cunningly uses fear to turn prey and predators against one another, in order to ascend to a position of power. With this story, the filmmakers aimed to create a highly entertaining and moving contemporary film that also tackles the issues of discrimination, bias and fear mongering.
"I think one of the reasons the film has resonated so deeply around the world [is that] everybody found their lens into the movie," said Spencer. "It wasn't all the same. It's a huge political year here in the U.S., in Europe they have the refugees coming in, and in Asia there are other [issues]."
Howard noted that Disney has a history of addressing difficult subjects, for instance, "The Lion King is a great movie - with great music and characters - and it also let parents and families talk about death. [For Zootopia] we knew if we were going to do our homework and find out what's at the core of our own fears about our society and each other, we needed to do our due diligence in how we deliver that message. I think we learned about ourselves while we were making this movie. What's great about what Judy says at the end of the film is that it's not easy to solve or put behind us. It's only through talking about it - and realizing that there's a part in ourselves that needs examination and reflection - that [we can] to conquer it."
"Every human being wants to feel safe, and so it only takes a small incident to create an opportunity for someone who wants to shift the balance of power to change public opinion," he said of the fear mongering aspect of the story.
Moore emphasized that they didn't want to take a simplistic approach to the subject or how the issues are resolved. "We didn't want it to be 'Judy cures bias,'" he said. "We didn't want her to be a sterling character with no flaws to teach the city of Zootopia what it means to be a better person. That was important to us because it would feel like we were doing the themes a disservice."
"It was important to us that our main character finds that even she, with high morals and a positive attitude … can be manipulated by fear. In that self examination lies the answer; it's the challenge that we all grapple with."