How 'Zootropolis' uses animals to tell a very human story

30 Mar 2016 BY Kirsten Geekie in Film Features

8 mins

Disney's Zootropolis

Fulfilling her dream of becoming a police officer, the academy's first ever rabbit cop Judy Hopps is determined to make a difference. Leaving her large family behind in the carrot-farming town of Bunnyburrow, she jumps off towards the bright lights of Zootropolis to join the Police Department. A modern mammal metropolis, where prey and predator live together, Judy is overwhelmed by the big city and excited about a life of case-cracking adventures. However, on her first day she is given the easy traffic warden shift, and soon realises that despite the city's inclusive environment, being a rabbit - and a girl - means she will never be equal to her larger rhino and buffalo colleagues who get the juicer cases. Undeterred, Judy's path crosses with a sly-fox called Nick, whose dodgy dealings lead Judy to her very own missing-persons - one that only her skills and his knowledge can crack.

Creating a modern mammal metropolis

As the train shuttles Judy into Zootropolis, her eyes feast on its vast, diverse world. One of the trickiest scenes to film, due to the huge amount of detail involved, this arrival gives both Judy and the audience a glimpse into the ingenious neighbourhoods that form the city. From the dry orange sand dunes of Saraha Square to the icy blue terrains of Tundratown; from the humid green Rain Forest district, to the bright, bustling watering hole in Savanna Central; to the miniature world of Little Rodentia, each district has its own distinct landscape, climate, colouring, and lighting, all carefully designed to suit the natural habitats of the animals that live there. Such impressive city-building by Disney was last seen in Big Hero 6's futuristic San Fransoyko, and it was lighting technology developed for that film which animators utilise here to create the detailed eco-systems of Zootropolis. 

Animalistic animation

An homage to classic Disney animation Robin Hood, the filmmakers wanted Zootropolis to be an all-animal world featuring characters with authentic animal traits that are nonetheless anthropomorphic, or human-like. With 64 different species to create, the Visual Effects team were challenged with making every animal unique and authentic in shape, size, and movement, yet also wear human clothes naturally. Like a rabbit, Judy is cute, bouncy and athletic - her nose twitches and her ears prick up when alerted to something; Fox Nick has a bushy tail, walks on his toes and pins back his ears when scared; Major Lionheart is the leader of the city, authoritative and respected with a luscious mane of hair, and there are many more examples. However one of the comedy highlights are the lumbering, cuddly, yet painfully slow-moving and bureaucratic sloths. 

Through talking to animal experts and their field research, the animators understood the key to capturing these animals identities was their fur. Developing tools used in Frozen, they created technology allowing them to control every single follicle of hair on an animal, expressing a level of movement and interaction with the characters' clothes and touch not seen in previous Disney films. 

A film fur film buffs

Two contrasting characters like Judy and Nick coming together to fight crime is the classic set up for a buddy-cop comedy and there are many other crime-themed genres incorporated into the story. Judy's exciting chase across the city in pursuit of a slippery weasel strikes a chord with many spy-thrillers or cop dramas. The duo's exploration of the Cliffside Asylum - with its sinister setting and dramatic shadows - is a brilliant example of the stylish film noir genre popular in the 1940s. Older audiences will also recognise the arctic shrew crime boss Mr. Big as a reference to well-known gangster film The Godfather. This influence is also seen through the use of camera angles and filming styles borrowed from live action filmmaking.

Balancing the darker crime themes are lots of fun nods to classic Disney films, with the animal-worlds of The Jungle Book and The Lion King nostalgically coming to mind (Mayor Lionheart's mane is inspired by that of Mufasa). Keen-eyed fans will spot lots of Disney puns in the names of many of Zootropolis' buildings, cafés and billboards. Even modern and future Disney films get a shout-out when Judy comes across bootleg DVD seller Duke Weaselton - a character name borrowed from Frozen - who is selling strangely familiar sounding films, including WrangledWreck-It RhinoPig Hero 6 and even 'Meowana' - a cheeky cat-themed reference to Pixar's hotly anticipated South Pacific adventure Moana.

Challenging Stereotypes

The film's charm comes from a clever combination of authentic behavioural traits with personalities that challenge common myths about animals. Nick is a sly fox, but he's also pretty laid back; rabbits are supposedly timid creatures, and yet Judy is strong and determined. They say elephants never forget, but when Judy interviews Nanji, an Indian elephant yoga instructor, she has no recollection of anything. And for a supposedly fast, athletic animal, the Cheetah Clawhouser sure likes his donuts... 

Through this the filmmakers wittily explore a broader social message of acceptance and challenging stereotypes. In order to demonstrate this, the film has to upset the status quo, which in this case means the potential breakdown of the peace between prey and predator in Zootropolis. In a hint at the media's influence over common perceptions and bias, Judy makes a speech to the press in which her words are exaggerated and made worse, while pop-star Gazelle (voiced by singer Shakira) hosts a peaceful protest covered in a Lady Gaga-esque multi-fur dress. 

Each character in Zootropolis is fighting a stereotype while being challenged on their own assumptions. Chief Bogo doesn't think a rabbit can be a proper Police Officer. Judy and Nick are bred to think they are natural enemies, and therefore presume wrongly about each other. Even the apparent good-guys are not what they seem - but neither are the bad-guys. These characters are not perfect; they make mistakes, but ultimately they learn to accept each other as they are.

As Major Lionheart announces: in Zootropolis, anyone can be anything.

Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager

Kirsten Geekie, Film Curation Manager

MA (Hons) in English Literature & Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow with a background in Film Festivals having worked for Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and BFI London Film Festival.

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