Disney Accused of Stealing ‘Zootopia’ From ‘Total Recall’ Screenwriter

Disney Accused of Stealing 'Zootopia' From
Courtesy of Disney

A veteran screenwriter filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday accusing Disney of stealing his idea for the hit animated film “Zootopia.”

Gary Goldman alleges that Disney took character designs, themes, lines of dialogue, and even the name “Zootopia” from a project that he first developed in 2000. He alleges that he twice pitched the project to Disney executives, in 2000 and 2009, and was rejected. The lawsuit accuses Disney of a long history of stealing ideas from others, and contends that “Zootopia” is only the most recent example of an embedded corporate practice.

“Although The Walt Disney Company rigorously enforces its copyrights, it has developed a culture that not only accepts the unauthorized copying of others’ original material, but encourages it,” Goldman alleges. “Instead of lawfully acquiring Goldman’s work, Defendants said they were not interested in producing it and sent him on his way. Thereafter, consistent with their culture of unauthorized copying, Defendants copied Goldman’s work.”

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A Disney spokesman flatly rejected the claim.

“Mr. Goldman’s lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations,” the spokesman said. “It is an unprincipled attempt to lay claim to a successful film he didn’t create, and we will vigorously defend against it in court.”

Goldman alleges that he registered a treatment for a live-action film called “Looney” with the Writers Guild of America, West, in August 2000. According to the suit, “Looney” was to be the first installment in a “Zootopia” franchise that would also include an animated “Zootopia.” Goldman’s concept included a human animator who creates a cartoon animal world meant to reflect a complex human society. According to Goldman, the society included class and power structures based on the characteristics of different species.

Goldman hired an animator to develop characters, which he alleges are strikingly similar to those in Disney’s “Zootopia.”

Goldman’s version features a squirrel named Mimi, who is cute and optimistic, but is not taken seriously and is discriminated against. Goldman alleges the character bears a strong resemblance to Judy, the bunny cop in “Zootopia.” Goldman also developed a hyena character named Roscoe, who is a cynical outcast from society, which he alleges is similar to Nick, the fox in “Zootopia.”

In Goldman’s version, the cartoon world was led by Griz, a dominant grizzly bear which Goldman says is similar to Bogo, the police chief in the Disney “Zootopia.” Goldman also claims that Gazelle in the Disney version is based on his own Cha, a cheetah.

“Both are Latin female characters, in the bodies of African animals, who are ostensibly attractive and function as performers and sex symbols. Males fall for them even though they are unattainable,” Goldman alleges.

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The lawsuit alleges that both projects advance similar themes, including achieving one’s dreams and overcoming stereotypes.

Goldman also claims that “Zootopia” replicates the plot of his own project almost beat for beat.

“The heroes work to achieve a career dream that their parents specifically discourage. They go to academies where they excel, achieve recognition for their work, and earn the opportunity to go to the big city for their dream jobs.

“In the big city, the heroes come up against strong, powerful, and entrenched bosses who want to maintain control over the heroes. The heroes are obsessed with their work and go to extreme lengths in pursuit of success, even taking principled stances in defiance of their bosses. The heroes have partners who help them achieve success. But success goes to the heroes’ heads and they publicly offend others and alienate their partners, exhibiting their own prejudices. This triggers a job crisis, resulting in the heroes losing their dream jobs and hard-won statuses.”

In both projects, the hero returns home and encounters their former bullies, which teaches an important lesson.

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“The heroes eventually overcome their own prejudices, reconcile with their partners, and finish their unfinished projects. In doing so, they regain their lost statuses and illustrate that one can evolve and become what he or she wants to be,” the suit states.

The lawsuit alleges that Disney went so far as to borrow dialogue from Goldman’s project. In Goldman’s treatment, a character says, “If you want to be an elephant, you can be an elephant.” In Disney’s version, Judy says: “You wanna be an elephant when you grow up? You be an elephant. Because this is Zootopia. Anyone can be anything.”

Goldman, the screenwriter of “Total Recall” and an executive producer of “Minority Report,” says he first pitched the project to David Hoberman in 2000. Hoberman had been Disney’s president of motion pictures and was then the CEO of Mandeville Films, which had a first-look deal with Disney. Though Hoberman responded favorably in the meeting, Goldman states that Mandeville ultimately passed on the project.

In 2007, Goldman says he was hired to write a screenplay for “Blaze,” a Marvel project. For that film, he says he worked with Brigham Taylor, who was Disney’s executive vice president of production and development. According to the suit, Goldman pitched Taylor on the “Zootopia” project in 2009. Goldman says that Taylor said he would show the materials to Disney’s animation department, but later passed on acquiring the rights to the project.

In interviews, “Zootopia” director Byron Howard has said that the germ of the film was planted in 2010, when he and Nathan Greno — his “Tangled” co-director — pitched Disney Animation boss John Lasseter on several ideas involving talking animals.

“I will fully support any movie that shows animals running around in tiny clothes,” Howard quoted Lasseter as saying.

Howard told Slashfilm that the project began as a spy movie featuring a James Bond-like rabbit character, and evolved into a detective story starring a rabbit and a fox.

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  1. Royce says:

    Brigham Taylor is the same Disney executive involved with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie / lawsuit. There is a Brigham Taylor and Michael Eisner connection involving Pirates of the Caribbean and Zootpia… Mmmm — Funny how people who don’t work in the industry like to attack artists who do work in the industry. Funny how people who don’t work in the industry are the ones who defend Disney. —–

  2. Jenny W says:

    This lawsuit is going nowhere fast. Disney’s barrage of lawyers will crush this nuisance suit like a fly on caramel. Next.

  3. crossie says:

    Wait, wait wait.

    There are two Gary Goldmans, and one is an animator, but he’s NOT the one suing?

    First Chuck/Berry/Barris, now this. Entertainers need to stop ripping off each other’s names.

  4. Anyone heard of the animated film “Secret Agent 00K9” ?

    In 2007 Disney was pitched the animated James Bond Parody “Secret Agent 00K9” which features an anthropomorphic animal-human fantasy world. 00K9 is a biped who exists in a world without any humans and goes on a mission requiring the character to meet with strange animals to gather evidence to thwart a chemical threat to the animal humans.

    Slashfilm did a story on the films release about how Zootopia was inspired by a James Bond parody on March 4, 2016 on the day of the films release. The story talks about Jack Savage who was originally conceived as spy character.

    00K9 – 2007
    Animal Metropolis

    Zootopia – 2013
    Mammal Metropolis

    • crossie says:

      I think the official story of ‘Zootopia’s creation is hilarious (whether or not you agree it’s true, that’s, as they say, for the courts to decide).

      Howard’s first feature length directing credit was for ‘Bolt’ where he was the clean-up director for Chris Sander’s ‘American Dog.’ After Sanders was fired, ‘American Dog’ became ‘Bolt’; ‘American Dog’ was originally a funny animal spy thriller parody, but it was deemed “too weird” and Sanders wasn’t budging, so he got the boot.

      So, when Howard gets the chance to pitch his own movie, he pitches … a funny animal spy thriller parody.

      Cheeky.

  5. crossie says:

    fAlso, the guy who directed ‘Anastasia’ claiming Disney ripped him off is a bit rich.

  6. crossie says:

    I’m really disappointed to find out this is neither the guy who was caught tracing ‘The Lion King’ coloring books and claiming DreamWorks stole ‘Kung Fu Panda’ from him, nor a furry.

    Seriously, the number of furry webcomics featuring animals dealing with species based prejudice (off the top of my head, ‘Gene Catlow’, ‘Rework the Dead’ [and by proxy, ‘Jack’], ‘Sabrina Online’, and that one I forget the name of by the creepy libertarian where black people were hyenas, like really cute hyenas, and I like hyenas, but, holy crap, dude did not think that one through) and/or an odd couple pairing of fox and rabbit (off the top of my head, ‘Tails of Mynarski Forest’, kinda ‘Faux Pas’ and , of course, the great granddaddy of them all, ‘T.H.E. Fox’ a.k.a. ‘Thaddeus) is staggering. There’s not a lot else to do with a furry world; no, strike that, there is a lot else to do, but prejudice/bias stories are really, really obvious. The bunny/fox thing, also the most obvious odd couple pairing in the animal kingdom outside of cat/mouse or cat/dog, and that doesn’t work because of the no domestic animals thing in ‘Zootopia’.

    Also, holy crap, bad animal puns. ‘Zootopia’ is ‘Zootropolis’ in the UK because that one was already in use by a third party. The kind of come with the territory.

    The reason ‘Zootopia’ is vulnerable to this kind of claim because it is incredibly generic; and I say that as one of the movie’s most ardent fans. Heck, I like it partially because I like the genre and the fact that it was a major production of it by professionals, rather than an obscure Internet fetishist’s (who thinks naming the main hyena character ‘Shaniqua’ is a good idea) comic strip.

    Part of the reason ‘Avatar’ is taking so long is because of people claiming Cameron ripped off their crappy idea, never realizing that, Jesus Christ, that movie was to science fiction what vanilla is to ice cream. Of course ‘Avatar’ resembles your script; it resembles every science fiction script, ever. It’s just got those visuals.

    ‘Zootopia’ is kind of the reverse; of course it resembles your visuals. A fox is a fox, which is not a hyena, which is not a black person, holy crap, that was so awful … BETTER DAYS! that’s what it was called!

  7. In the Know says:

    You think Disney came up with the idea for the Pirates franchise? Hell no, they stole that from a spec script pitched to them too.

  8. EJP says:

    Mr. Goldman’s synopsis of his film sounds nothing like the Zootopia I watched in the theater.

  9. Steven Gordon says:

    Disney has a history of stealing ideas. But they won’t re-release “Song of the South” for fears of being accused of being racist.

  10. David Bryant says:

    For those who scoff, I suggest you do a search for “Kimba the White Lion”, and then decide if this suit maybe, just maybe, might have merit.

  11. Barry Smithkin says:

    Disney also spies on people/artists to gain insight into trends, build characters the public can have affections for and more. The U.S. courts are very lenient on copyright infringement I suspect because politicians such as Presidential candidates often cannot survive without copying platform and policy from another more authentic candidate. Look at the pop performers recruited from Disney almost none of them write their own music.

  12. This is what happens in arts, design, drama and architecture: steal politely with hit-and-run method, which is scaled from normal terroristic patterns. The only character what is missing in Disney’s gang is Cow(ard).

    The worst ‘terroristic act’ is that Disney worked years in disguise and when stolen the drama, setup, characters, name and artistic idea betrayed the audience, the business and the original creator.

    Shame on you, Disney and Disney’s artists. If children knew that you act like a child porn pimp in camouflage by stealing and hiding other people’s creations, they would…

  13. Brute Saylog says:

    With so much money floating around, the big boys don’t want to share. Consider the costs associated with hiring an attorney, etc. The big boys think that the little guy will have a very difficult time and thus they do not really care if lawsuit is brought. If the Plaintiff is successful, then the most he will likely get is a percentage of the profits … but after a very high bar is crossed. I know… I created the Super Underwear Man (reboot in works for 2017) and have been accused of being a “…cheap knock-off…” of Captain undersomethings … even though the facts are nearly exactly opposite — my works pre-date CU by years… but some idiot-paid agents make up some phoney story. And they spread rumors like bees spread honey. Pretty soon, people hear propoganda as facts. If the Zootopia story is true, then of course I hope the Plaintiff prevail. And, I think that if the story is correct, the Disney WILL do the right thing, because they are good people. Sometimes bad people are placed in poweful positions. And … the Zootopia film was a hoot and Disney did a GREAT job! Perhaps the Plaintiff can negotiate a settlement and get on to the next project… because HE IS A GENIUS!!!! :) Gotta have DIsney on your side, if at all possible… Warner got no … … liver anymorte. [BTW pitched SUM to Warner … ALMOST (lie) converted them. ;)_ ) [My point is Disney or China.]

    • Steven Gordon says:

      It’s okay if Disney copies others. But God forbid you should use one of Disney’s ideas or characters in one of your own works. The corporate suits will be on you so fast it will make your head spin.

  14. I provided the concept and most of the story for Rogue One. Disney is uninterested. Avatar and Titanic were my stories. I invented The Force, The Jedi, and The Pirate Code. Maybe I should be paid something? Just a thought.

  15. sweeneytoddmusical says:

    I hope this isn’t real… I’m a huge fan of Zootopia and I don’t want someone to take it away and cease all the merchandising. :(

    I won’t say I disbelieve Disney stealing an idea, since something similar happened to me, but the difference is… I WANTED them to take the idea I had whether I benefitted or not. I was like 12. I just wanted to see it animated and I got what I wanted.

    However, something tells me two things. One, that it is possible this guy is just making noise for publicity and two, if he isn’t actually lying, then I and many others may never get a chance to have the Zootopia stuff that we want.

    I hope and pray that he’s just making noise.

  16. uh, Mike says:

    Did the writer think to inquire whether the suit has merit from a legal scholar? No.

  17. Alice says:

    New innovative and creative ideas is what makes money in this country. Disney is not transparent and is a thief.

  18. Alice says:

    New innovative and creative ideas is what makes money in this country. What is Disney’s problem with being transparent and just buying the script in the first place ??? It’s called greed. Disney is pathetic!

  19. Sct says:

    Why didn’t they just make their own movie if it was so great.

  20. daniel rosen says:

    This happens all the time!!! We need to stop it! Please help support this campaign by donating and/or sharing this post! thank you soooo much! https://www.gofundme.com/creativerightsmatter

  21. Bill says:

    He was so horrified, it took him over a year and Zootopia winning as OSCAR to realize it was his idea.

    Not even another person claiming Disney stole the idea made him think.

    Suuuuure.

  22. Patrick says:

    And not to forget: Universal stole Goldman’s koala for “Sing”!
    Acuuse Universal as well.

  23. Fred Mertz says:

    Happened to me too. And to friends of mine. That’s why Mickey wears gloves.

  24. gabe says:

    Gary Goldman wait a minute

  25. Katherine Korman says:

    I know Disney steals! I submitted a script back in the 80’s which was rejected and few years later, they came out with a similar concept movie with a similar title! However, it wasn’t a huge money maker plus I did not have the means to go up against a monolith like the Disney company

  26. LEE7 says:

    So this suit comes a year after release and a billion dollars plus in the till?

    • General Lee says:

      If he’s being repped by Quinn Emanuel, I suspect the case has some legitimate merits

    • Why not? These cases can take a lot of time and resources to prepare. It can often take months just to find the right lawyer. The fact that he waited a year before filing tells you nothing about the merits of the case.

    • Practical Voice in the Hollywood Wilderness says:

      Does it matter when it comes if it’s credible? There’s a million reasons why it could have been delayed.

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