Distinguished as one of the highest-grossing films of the year, coming in at over $1 billion worldwide, Disney’s Zootopia is also unique in what it has to say. Bowing in March, amidst constant election chatter, the film couldn’t be more resonant today, using talking animals to convey an allegory about discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice of all kinds—the central conflict of the film hinges on young bunny Judy Hopps, who faces discrimination in her journey to becoming a Zootopia police officer, and takes issue with being called “cute.”
Originally conceived as a spy film set on an exotic island, Zootopia eventually transformed into a buddy cop, film noir-tinged mystery, set in a world intricately designed by writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, in concert with a team of Disney artists. Speaking with Deadline, the writers discuss the coinciding of their film with a troubled election year, the pleasures in working outside of existing IP, and crafting the odd visual gag.
How did you both come on board Zootopia?
Jared Bush: I was really lucky to come in on this thing right when Byron [Howard, director] was rejiggering what the story could be. Originally, it was a spy movie set in an exotic animal island, and then day one, they said, it’s not going to be a spy movie. There’s no more exotic island. It’s all going to take place in this animal city, which used to be the first 10 minutes of that concept—but what was really exciting is Byron thought about the idea of predator and prey, these two groups that didn’t get along. And that, as a core nugget, was really, really exciting, and looking to our world and thinking about how different [people] get along or don’t get along, and then finding a way to make that city feel like our own world was really exciting and compelling. We felt like we had an opportunity to say something about our world today.
Phil Johnston: I came on later in the process, but was immediately attracted to the possibilities of a film that could tackle these kinds of issues. I’m interested in social satire, and I think the fact that you can use a family film to go after some bigger themes and issues in the world is kind of the beauty of working here.
Was it exciting to get to work on a project not built out of existing IP?
Johnston: It is crazy because as writers, we are often thrown ideas like, oh, would you like to adapt Boggle into a movie? So the fact that here we are, building stories from the ground up…It’s why you get into filmmaking. It’s why I wanted to do this from the time I was a kid.
Bush: It’s the biggest wish fulfillment in the world. There’s people creating every environment of this world, all the buildings, all the cars, all the things that are inside it, and literally an entire civilization. It’s the greatest thing imaginable.
With the political connotations of the film, which are quite applicable to our world, was the coinciding of the film with this election cycle pure happenstance?
Bush: Over the last five years, as we were building the movie, things were happening every day. So obviously during the election cycle, things have really flared up, but there were major issues that we would watch, and as we’re working on this movie, there was definitely the sense of, this movie could say something really important, because things are actually starting to get worse as we’re watching over the course of that five years. It really felt like, what is happening? So I think for all of us, it really felt like we had kind of an opportunity, but also a duty to do something about it.
Johnston: And I mean, without being a message movie, because it has a message—we’re obviously working for the Walt Disney Corporation, so we want to make entertaining films, but if we can hide a message in the film that suddenly people are talking about, that is the beauty of doing this kind of movie that reaches such a wide audience. And the ideology we’re preaching is human decency, I think more than anything—it’s not even a left, right thing. It’s just, come on, let’s be decent human beings, and the fact that we’re using talking animals to sell that idea is maybe ironic.
Bush: I think it makes it more palatable I think the fact that they’re animals, people can go in there and without saying that this animal equals this group, or this type of person, they can read in whatever they wanted to into the story, which is really important. Early on, we had a lot of consultants on the movie. One was Dr. Shakti Butler, who wrote something called Cracking the Codes. She also had a documentary that talked a lot about unconscious bias and the way that it’s such a massive problem. Bias and prejudice is such a massive problem that it feels overwhelming—I know it feels overwhelming to me when I’m talking to my kids. It feels like, how do I help them, and how do I look at this world and hope that one day there can be something different? What she said was, it’s not just a one-sided issue. It’s something where everyone has to be working on it together.
In making this film, with its level of visual density, how much of that world building was done on the page?
Bush: It actually happened the other way around—we spent about nine months just doing research, and went to Africa. We talked to anthropologists; we talked to animal experts. We talked to city planners. And we actually spent most of the time figuring out what that world looked like. At the same time, we had visual development artists here trying to figure those things out as well. We went to zoos. We went to Disney Animal Kingdom. It was such a massive, but really fun sandbox to play in. We had all those things built, so by the time you got to the script you could just say, “It’s this place,” and we had walls and folders and files and pictures, and here’s what that looks like. That was a year basically of just building a civilization.
I remember Matthias Lechner, who did an amazing job with artwork on this movie. He drew a version of the entire city, and he had buildings and all the shadows and how the city would work, and here’s the mist coming off of the Rainforest District, and ice melting in Tundra Town that was feeding steam vents. And he had the whole thing worked out in such a way that it wasn’t just, “This looks kind of pretty and neat.” He had figured out all the mechanics of how that would actually work.
As far as crafting the visuals, I’d imagine working on the film’s visual puns would be one of the more enjoyable aspects.
Bush: That’s the candy that we get—our little candy.
Johnston: Yeah. We’ll sit in a room with a dozen people, artists, and it’s probably a lot like a writer’s room on TV, where ideas are just thrown out, and there’s so many visual gags and stupid puns and silly things that we just embrace wholeheartedly.
Often, those come late and almost incidentally. Like, oh, the way he drew that thing looks kind of like Breaking Bad. All right, we’re just going to go all in and think of Breaking Bad references, and name the characters Woolter and Jesse—like, it’s silly, but why not?
Bush: It’s a little mental vacation.
What is the process of crafting jokes that work on multiple levels, both for children and adults?
Johnston: The trick is you go too far, and then you let them pull you back. You never go before the line. You always go over the line, and then we’ll let people go, no, no, back, back, back.
We’ve been in these note sessions with our Storytrust, our Braintrust, where people are like, guys, you can’t do that. I’m like, yeah, we kind of can. I think it’s okay. I remember getting the note like, gosh, Judy’s parents. They can’t really say that. That’s not good parenting…Like, yeah, that’s the point.
First and foremost, we both have kids about the same age, so I always think of it as, what’s going to make me enjoy going to the movies with them on a Saturday afternoon? And then if I’m like, well, that’s pushing it, we let our peers tell us if we’ve gone too far.
Bush: But I also think these days, kids are so sophisticated, audiences are so sophisticated, that it’s a mistake to write down to an age. We never want to do that because certainly watching my kids, I’m amazed at what they pick up and what they are challenged by, and I’d rather do that than serve them something soft. I think the biggest one is probably just making sure it’s sophisticated enough for adults, because I think there’s ways that you can entertain children more easily, but making sure that the adults are being challenged is the most important.
Johnston: And I think honestly this is a movie for adults as much as it is for kids—we always knew that, and weren’t trying to dull anything down. I mean, it’s still a PG-rated animated film, but it’s a film that I’m hoping grownups will see as much as kids. I guess they did.
Jared, you worked on Disney’s upcoming Moana as well. How does it compare?
Bush: Hugely different, tonally—as opposed to Zootopia, where it’s 100,000 animals in a modern city, where there is free entertainment and pop culture everywhere, Moana tells a story of a 16-year-old who lives on an island in Oceania, which is in the Pacific Ocean. She’s a Pacific Islander, and she has this desire within herself to go out on the ocean, for some reason that you find out over the course of the movie. She’s not allowed to go out there, but she has this sort of burning desire to go out there and find out who she is. The story is really about her and a character named Maui, who is a demigod in the Pacific Islands. And what makes it so different from Zootopia is that it’s just two people on a boat, pretty much. It’s two people on a boat, which really makes you hone down on telling character stories and making sure that relationship is really compelling.
Phil, what’s next for you?
Johnston: I’m working on the next Wreck-It Ralph movie, so yeah, very exciting—and it takes place in the internet, so lots of world building there.
Bush: Will there be any puns?
Johnston: It’s pun-free, no puns in this movie; not one.