'Zootopia' lawsuit claims Disney stole original idea from 'Total Recall' screenwriter

Zootopia” proved to be a runaway hit when Walt Disney Co. released the animated movie last year, grossing more than $1 billion worldwide and eventually winning an Academy Award.

Now Disney is being sued by a screenwriter who alleges that the Burbank-based entertainment giant stole his original idea and copied his designs for the movie’s animal characters.

Gary Goldman, a screenwriter whose credits include “Total Recall” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” said in a suit filed Tuesday in a Los Angeles federal court that he pitched his idea to Disney for a franchise of movies and TV programs called “Zootopia” that would include an animated feature and a live-action component. The complaint claims that Disney rejected the idea only to later steal his story, dialogue, title and artwork for a menagerie of animated characters.

Disney’s “Zootopia” is “substantially similar” to the “Zootopia” conceived by Goldman, the suit states. “Each of the works addresses the issue of whether, in a diverse society as represented by the different species of ‘Zootopia,’ one can be anything he or she wants to be.”

Disney said in a statement Tuesday: “Mr. Goldman’s lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations. 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 and his lawyers declined to comment. The plaintiff is claiming copyright infringement and breach of confidence, among other allegations.

Hollywood is rife with lawsuits brought by writers claiming that their ideas were stolen. In the recent past, writers have brought suits against the makers of “Avatar,” “The Martian,” “Creed” and “Django Unchained.”

The courts have sided against the writers in many of these suits. But in the 1990 case of Buchwald vs. Paramount, a court found in favor of humorist Art Buchwald, who together with a partner sued the studio claiming that it had stolen his idea for what became the Eddie Murphy movie “Coming to America.”

The “Zootopia” suit states that Goldman unsuccessfully pitched his idea in 2000 to Mandeville Films Chief Executive David Hoberman. Nine years later, the writer pitched his idea to Disney production executive Brigham Taylor. Again, the pitch was turned down, according to the suit.

The complaint also alleges numerous character similarities between Goldman’s idea and the Disney movie. The suit compares the Disney character Nick, a red fox who is a con artist, to the writer’s concept for Roscoe, a hyena.

“Both are dog-like predators who appear sly, cynical, and untrustworthy because of their postures, half-lidded eyes, and smirks,” the lawsuit said.

The suit, filed by Goldman’s production company, Esplanade, targets multiple Disney divisions, including its film, consumer products and video game units.

“Zootopia” was released in March last year to nearly universal acclaim and won an Oscar in February for animated feature.

Goldman was also a screenwriter for the 1990 movie “Navy Seals” and the 2007 sci-fi thriller “Next.” He served as an executive producer on Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”

david.ng@latimes.com

@DavidNgLAT

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