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How 'Zootopia's' upbeat score explores race and prejudice

Disney's "Zootopia" has some very real and topical messages about race and prejudice delivered in the form of a cuddly cartoon caper. Integral to capturing the film's themes and keeping its more serious aspects bouncing under the surface rather than presenting the audience with a lecture is "Zootopia's" upbeat, character-focused score courtesy of Michael Giacchino.

Heavily percussive, a bit jazzy and unafraid to use a mixing bowl as an instrument, the composer's approach to "Zootopia" has resulted in a score that's worldly and fast with an improvisational feel. Giacchino, whose previous animated credits include the Disney/Pixar films "Inside Out" and "Up," says he was drawn to "Zootopia" because of its real-world parallels.

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Though the core of the story is about the journey of a hopeful bunny named Judy Hopps — please do not call her cute; as those who have seen the film know, only rabbits can use that term — "Zootopia" explores how bias can shape personal opinions and political policies.

Yes, it's deep.

"It affected me in a very personal way," Giacchino says. "It made me want to look at all the issues that are going on in our world right now. The chance to explore that artistically was very interesting to me. It's really a personal movie. That may sound strange to say. 'This big giant Disney animated film is really a personal film.' But it really, really is."

Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore say Giacchino's score — slinky, rhythmic and constantly moving the film forward — zeroed in on what was most important to the narrative. That is, the naivete of Hopps, her at-times unconscious prejudice and her relentless optimism. It was announced that Giacchino was brought onto the film in late 2015, and at an early meeting Howard and Moore showed the composer what they deemed to be the six most poignant and emotional scenes of the movie.

Giacchino came back two weeks later with an eight-minute suite, one that ignored the film's more comedic elements. Instead, he turned in a tune of piano-driven heartbreak.

"Michael instinctively knew not to try and underscore the comedy of the movie," Moore says. "Good comedy films, if you listen to the score, the music is not trying to be funny. It's always in a way underscoring the tragedy and struggle of the main character. Michael knew to go right for that."

Giacchino prefers to talk about film music as it relates to story. Press him on specific details and he'll bring the conversation back to the film's character arcs. Still, he reveals he used some unconventional gadgets for "Zootopia," including Indonesian instruments, Middle Eastern bells and numerous gifts from percussionist Emil Richards, who worked on the original "Planet of the Apes." The latter included a steel mixing bowl and a ram's horn.

"I wanted to take odd things and use them as you would a piano or a violin," Giacchino says. "I wanted to use instruments in ways you normally don't use them. For me, that was a representation of a big city. I lived in New York City for six years, and I was always amazed at how diverse everything was. It was right in your face. You step out the door and diversity is right in front of you. I wanted to get some of that feeling in the music somewhere."

Giacchino has often said he initially likes to focus on the saddest moments of a film. Though the city in "Zootopia" is presented as a bustling metropolis with neighborhoods often segregated by animal, Giacchino very intentionally focused the score around the feelings of the character of Hopps, who is voiced in the film by Ginnifer Goodwin. She's a bunny who wants to be a cop, and the world keeps trying to beat her down. There are prejudices other animals hold toward rabbits, but Hopps has her own not-so-politically-correct thoughts about some animal predators herself.

Giacchino, then, tries to capture what's going through Hopps' head rather than attempt to reflect the emotional severity of the individual scenes. For instance, there's a moment early on that the fox Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, gives Hopps a lecture on life in the big city. Rather than cue the strings or bring on the melancholy, Giacchino's score keeps zipping along with a Latin-influenced festivity.

"I don't know that at that point in the story she's 100% ready to accept that yet," Giacchino says of Hopps' reaction to Wilde's reality check. "She's listening to it, but it's sort of going through her because she's still focused on what she wants, which is just his help. She's being righteous. She's not at the point where she's looking back at herself. She's still at the point where she's like, 'I'm not listening to you. What you did is wrong and I'll tell you why.' "

In turn, Giacchino's score helps shift what could have been a police procedural into a story about individual growth and how to battle unfounded fears. Hopps throughout the course of the film carries a spray that will keep foxes at bay — just, you know, in case her underlying prejudices turn out to be right. That inner struggle — and, let's face it, ignorance — is what Giacchino wanted to reflect.

"How does that affect somebody? How does that affect the people she's forced to interact with? The idea of someone who is the most optimistic person on the planet, and believes that they don't hold bias toward anyone, but then realizing, 'Oh, my God. I actually do!' That's a very human thing that we all have and all struggle with," he says. "The idea of exploring that was the most exciting thing about doing the movie."

Giacchino has strong feelings about modern animation. The composer, in his late 40s, cites the mid-to-late-'70s' "The Muppets Show" as a primary influence; it introduced him to "1920s music, big band music, jazz and Latin," he says. Today, he fears that much of animation is about "stupidness." His word.

"I hate to say this, but there's so much that's just about being silly and dumb," he says. "They ignore the chance to tell real stories about real human experiences. So when they try and do it, it feels false. 'Here's the sad moment.' It doesn't ring true. But I think what Byron and Rich did so well was connect it to our world. This film is about what we're dealing with right now in our society."

And, directors and composer say, if the film manages to have something grander to say about modern society, it's because the story — and its music — were focused on the tale of one bunny.

"We don't like message movies," Moore says. "I don't like movies, TV shows or books or anything that's preaching to the audience or speaking down to us. We never came at it from a POV [point of view] of presenting a theory and intellectually try to win over the audience by proving it on the screen."

That's where the buddy comedy high jinks of "Zootopia's" fox and bunny come in.

"I like when entertainment not only makes me laugh or cry or thrills me," Moore says, "but makes the world a little clearer — and makes myself a little clearer."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Zootopia' score enhances without silliness" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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