Some of the best animated motion pictures from Walt Disney Animation Studios are the ones where big risks were taken and bold choices were made by the filmmakers. Rather than playing it safe with tried and true formulas all of the time, the filmmakers at Disney Animation have often made audacious artistic and thematic choices that truly raised the bar in artistry, technology, and storytelling. And we, the filmgoing public, have been the lucky beneficiaries.
One need not look further than 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first Disney full-length animated feature and the film that Walt and Roy Disney bet everything on, to know that it was a risk worth taking and that the payoff was commensurate to the financial and artistic gamble that was being made. Or take 1940’s Fantasia, Disney Animation’s third motion picture, that is still one of the most avant-garde animated films to date 75 years after its original release. Then there’s 1989’s The Little Mermaid, Disney Animation’s 28th film and the one that marked the happy and triumphant return of the animated fairy tale musical of which Disney continued on with great success throughout the 1990s. While not all films from the Disney Animation canon that tried something new were always great (1985’s The Black Cauldron and 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire come to mind as films with a bold premise and great potential that didn’t deliver ultimately), the filmmakers at Disney Animation that were allowed to or even encouraged to try something new have been able to create films that are both distinctly Disney and distinctly a work of art with a strong point of view.
Now there’s Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 55th animated motion picture. It’s been a huge artistic and financial success worldwide (currently, its gross earnings stand at $994 million as of this writing and will probably hit $1 billion over the next week or so). I believe the film’s success is because of the risk the filmmakers at Disney Animation took in making the film they wanted to make and telling the story they wanted to tell, a hallmark of the filmmaker-driven philosophy championed by studio heads John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Rather than just playing safe with Disney Animation’s first buddy cop movie and first anthropomorphic animal tale told in many years (1973’s Robin Hood and both Rescuers films from 1977 and 1990 are among my personal favorites of this sub genre), co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore were allowed, even encouraged, to take their animated comedy into a place not often explored within the films of Walt Disney Animation Studios—they made a modern-day allegorical fable with the theme of racial bias as its main focus.
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears during the first time I saw Zootopia at the screening I attended in the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ theater on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, CA. While I was beyond thrilled to see the beautifully animated and designed film in the building where so many of the film’s artists and filmmakers work every day, I think my jaw dropped a few times when the events of the film unfolded. I was shocked and delighted that Disney actually made a movie that so deftly, directly, and appropriately tackled some of the biggest social issues which still face our modern society today.
Co-director Byron Howard says it best in the excellent documentary Imagining Zootopia:
“For Zootopia, I think the thing that I find the most moving about the film is that in this world of animals where all animals are so different from one another, there are things that are common, where they find that connection…Where they find that in the end, we all care about the same things. We all deserve the respect that we want from each other. We deserve to be happy in our lives. We deserve love. We deserve equality. And that’s why I think these movies can be so powerful. Because they are modern fables, we’re able to talk about things that are very, very difficult and we’re able to bring things into conversation that are awkward to talk about.”
And not only couldn’t I believe the film’s themes, but that they included homages to some of the great (and non-Disney) film classics, including The Godfather, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential, to name a few. And even TV’s Breaking Bad got a shoutout—in a Disney movie! Crazy, yet very clever, smart, and hilarious.
The payoff is big with a very satisfying and well-made film that entertains children and adults alike and that makes you think. The Zootopia team made bold, if not completely unconventional, choices, but they totally work and make the film so much fun to watch. And although the filmmakers decided to go for timely instead of timeless, the creative decisions still felt, well, creative and still Disney to me, albeit it with a bit more of an edge rather than a warm fuzzy. From my perspective, Zootopia is a wonderful concoction for a modern audience that still respects the past and moves the Disney animated feature forward in new and entertaining ways.P.S. And even Miranda Sings had a part in the film! Haha.