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Annecy: Disney Gives Toon Fans a Taste of ‘Zootopia’

With Disney Animation Studios back on track, the Mouse House develops an old-school anthropomorphic animal movie with 'Zootopia.'

What “Tangled” and “Frozen” did for animated fairy tales, “Zootopia” aims to do for talking-animal toons — at least, that’s the take-away from Disney’s side-splitting Tuesday afternoon presentation at the Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival.

After an oddly timed walk-through of the creative thinking that went into “Frozen” from director Chris Buck (odd considering the fact the film opened more than 18 months earlier), followed by a screening of already-seen spinoff short “Frozen Fever” (which screened theatrically attached to “Cinderella” last spring), the Mouse House delighted the crowd with a forward-looking glimpse of its first-quarter 2016 release “Zootopia.”

Co-directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”) — who ran out on stage dressed in furry rabbit and fox costumes — the film recalls the anthropomorphic style of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn “Robin Hood,” taking place in an elaborate society where humans don’t exist, but all the different creatures speak, wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.

“I’ve been trying to get an animal movie made at Disney for a long time,” Howard said. “Our boss, John Lasseter, feels that better storytelling comes from research.” At first, Lasseter sent them to a local wild-animal park to study the animals’ behavior and movement, but that wasn’t enough, packing the creative team off to Kenya, where they observed zebras, cheetahs and giraffes in the open savannah.

Those trips directly informed how the animators adapted the animals’ natural movements to walking upright, as well as the personalities of the various critters in the film. Oddly enough, that sort of species-specific stereotyping happens to be what the prejudice-challenging film aims to debunk, using creativity and humor to deliver a pointed commentary on racial tolerance.

“One of the biggest problems in Zootopia is bias,” Moore explained. “Animals are quick to stereotype each other.”

In the film, Ginnifer Goodwin plays Judy Hopps, the society’s first bunny cop. (The rest of the Zootopia police force is made up of bigger animals, like rhinos and buffalo.) Rather than give up her dream, she accepts work as a meter maid, dispensing tickets, until getting mixed up with wily fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) threatens to derail what little progress she’s made on the force.

Talking-animal stories were one of the Disney cliches Lasseter swore off during the early days of Pixar (along with the Broadway-style “I want” song, so wonderfully revived in “Frozen’s” “Let It Go”). In the interim, DreamWorks Animation has delivered several, including “Over the Hedge,” “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda,” with Sony released “Open Season” and “Surf’s Up.”

Judging by the material presented at Annecy, “Zootopia” vis-dev artist Cory Loftis and his colleagues appear to have designed some of the studio’s most visually appealing CG characters yet for the film. At the very least, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde represent a marked improvement over the Bratz-doll look of their recent human counterparts.

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