How Social Issues Helped Change “Zootopia”

Over the weekend, Kim Masters of The Business podcast spoke with “Zootopia” directors, Rich Moore and Byron Howard, who have been in the industry for 25 years, over the production history of the film and how the events of Ferguson and the emergence of Black Lives Matters affected “Zootopia” and it’s story. The film is now nominated for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Academy Awards.

Before the directors spoke about the film, they mention how despite traditional animation no longer being a norm at the Walt Disney Company, the attitude is the same with CG. As Rich Moore mentions: “I think as far as personalities, the people involved in animation have been exactly the same… despite the change in medium, the personality and characteristics  of animators, I don’t think that changes” (Masters, Howard, and Moore 2017).

Originally, Jason Bateman’s character, Nick Wilde, was the main character of the film, and about a year before release, the main character switched to what the film is now. Also originally the film was to be a spy film. Byron Howard noted that early on they noticed a predator and prey relationship and wondered “could we use an animated film to talk about bias, prejudice, and stereotype?” The idea was supported throughout the company and had a darker tone than the final product.

Similar to the production history of “Toy Story” (Lasseter 1995), the film’s main characters were unlike-able, the setting was dark, the scenario was dark and the film wasn’t working. Due to this problem the team flipped the film’s main character’s and wanted to make it more contemporary and relate-able, using subtle bias instead of explicit bias (Masters, Howard and Moore 2017).

One of the main issues of this film was going too far and becoming too dark with the subject matter. One scene in particular involved a shock collar element and due to the darkness of the scene, it made the filmmakers question what this film really was about: “Some people loved individual scenes,” Moore said, “but they knew that as a whole, it was not coming together…” (Masters, Howard and Moore 2017).

As the film dabbled into uncertainty, it was the social issues brought up Ferguson that made the team change and finalize the vision of the film despite being far into the production stage:

“We were in production of the movie when the crisis of Ferguson began and it really hit home that what we were working on thematically, an animated film about talking animals, it was happening in our real world, in our country and suddenly it went from a theoretical observation of the world around us to, no, this is real and to me, that’s when the whole thing kind of crystallized and it made it so much easier to tell this story.”

The end of the podcast grew political but despite the political biases of the directors, they managed to create a piece of work that showcases that animated film can talk about modern social issues in a way that makes an impact to a mass audience.

The Academy Awards are February 26th, 2017 and other contenders for Best Animated Feature include: “Kubo and the Two Strings”, “Moana”, “My Life as a Zucchini”, and “The Red Turtle”.

Work Cited

“‘Zootopia’ directors on finding their story, late in the game.” Interview. Audio blog post. KCRW, 18 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <;.

#oscars #zootopia #animation #thebusiness


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