One of the smartest and most subversive movies in the Oscar race this year comes in an unexpected package — that of a Disney animated film featuring adorable animals who tackle such weighty issues as racism, sexism, and governing through fear. “Zootopia” was helmed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore (with co-director Jared Bush), who also developed the story, with a screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston.
In the film, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) sets out to be the first rabbit police officer, only to team up with a con artist fox (voiced by Jason Bateman) to solve the mystery of why some animals are turning feral. The serious subject matter is cleverly buoyed by humor, such as when Hopps explains to a cheetah, “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it’s a little…”
Howard and Moore spoke to Variety about the timeliness of their film, the Oscar nominee that praised the film, and the possum that took up residence in their office vending machine.
What was the response from the studio when you pitched a $150 million animated movie about racism?
Byron Howard: When we pitched this idea five years ago, doing a movie about bias and discrimination didn’t seem like the most mainstream thing for Disney to go after. But the fact is, it was really readily embraced by everyone. We got nothing but support. And the more chances we took, the deeper and edgier it got. We had a guerilla filmmaking style, we were working in this crazy warehouse out by the Burbank airport that had possums in the vending machines, and we all bonded over this bizarre film we’d committed to making.
Wait, you don’t associate the term “guerilla filmmaking” with Disney. Why were you working in a warehouse?
Rich Moore: Our animation building was being renovated. When it was built in the early ’90s, it wasn’t really conducive to human beings. So we all had to move out for about two years. We were in a big warehouse in North Hollywood next to the runway of the Burbank airport and some train tracks and a junkyard. It was a pretty down and dirty operation. It reminded me of a lot of the places I worked at early in my career — animation in the late-’80s was not burgeoning like today. It was about the love of the craft, and the rough-around-the-edges location kind of made it more fun.
Howard: It felt like a big college loft and you were making a film with your roommates.
And how did the possum get into the vending machine?
Howard: I still have no idea how it got in the machine.
Moore: It was a baby possum, and I want everyone to know, it’s fine. It wanted to get into the snack machine but it made the mistake of going into the drink vending machine. I actually bought it thinking it was a Snapple.
Disney consistently turns out quality animated films; what do you think is the secret to that?
Howard: I think it’s very collaborative and it’s something John (Lasseter) and Ed (Catmull) brought to Disney 10 years ago. Everyone in the building has a voice. Everyone feels like it’s their film. I think that makes a huge difference.
Moore: Especially with this film. It wasn’t a traditional subject matter, so any suggestions to make it better, we were open to hearing.
You have an amazing cast in the film, including two Oscar winners. Do you pitch them the story or do people actually sign on because of the Disney brand?
Moore: No one signs on just because it’s a Disney movie. The actors really care about the roles. We go for people who are more than just somebody who comes in and plant themselves in front of a mic and say what we want. These guys were terrific, better than you would even hope. You go in with a vision in your head of what Jason Bateman’s going to be like in person, and he was that and more. Because these things take a long time to make, these guys are coming in for over two years to work on these things and they become family members.
Was J.K. Simmons an Oscar winner when you went out to him?
Moore: He was, he had just won the Oscar when we went out to him.
Howard: And boy, did he let us know! (Laughs) No, he was great. Everyone was such a thrill to work with. Both Rich and I grew up loving Cheech and Chong, so having Tommy Chong sitting in our recording booth voicing this nudist yak…it was amazing.
In many ways, the film is timelier than ever.
Howard: That’s true. When we were in production on the film, we wanted to really look at the topic and talk about it honestly. Things were not great in the world. Ferguson and other incidents like it were happening. It made us pause for a moment, not to ask, “Do we really want to be doing this movie about things going on in the real world?” It was more like we had our finger on something important right now and we really need to do our best to portray this as honestly as we can. Then with the election and the campaign, the real move towards governing by fear — which is what our entire third act is about, our villain is using fear to stoke division — I don’t think we could have predicted it any closer with this film.
Moore: We got to do this remarkable thing last week at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, we had 4,400 kids, fifth and sixth graders, come in for a screening of “Zootopia.”
Howard: They talked about it and did craft projects about it and the intelligence and awareness about these tough social ideas resonating with kids was very heartening.
Moore: We were just in London for the BAFTAs and I ran into Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight.” And he said, “Oh my God I love ‘Zootopia!’” And he even mentioned something like Byron was saying, that around his house, there are kids — I think nieces and nephews — that saw it and then talked about current events by using “Zootopia” as a prism.
Howard: He said, “Whatever you do, make the next one just as subversive!”