In a scene in "Zootopia," the heroine, a well-intended bunny police officer named Judy Hopps, condescendingly calls a character of another species "articulate."
The dubious compliment — reminiscent of a cringe-worthy comment Joe Biden made about then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007, is the kind of sharp-edged, topical joke you might expect from a late-night talk-show host or a grown-up animated show that plays on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block.
Instead the nuanced moment comes smack in the middle of a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, and it's not the only edgy reference — "Zootopia," which opens Friday, also includes sly innuendoes about police profiling and workplace discrimination as well as allusions to grown-up pop culture favorites "The Godfather," "Chinatown" and "Breaking Bad."
Yes, the studio known for its fairy tale castles and doe-eyed princesses has sneaked a tart, subtle examination of bias into the middle of a talking-animals movie.
"There were moments when we were making this that we would say, 'Is this just playing to us?'" said "Wreck-It Ralph's" Rich Moore, who directed "Zootopia" with Byron Howard ("Tangled") and co-director Jared Bush. "But we think we've hit on something. We've been happy to find that both the humor and the meat of it are resonating, that people are finding meaning in the film beyond just jokes and a caper."
For the Record
March 4, 10:20 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said Jared Bush is one of "Zootopia's" directors. His title is co-director.
Whereas Pixar films such as "Up" and "Inside Out" relied on sophisticated psychology, and DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek" included knowing inside jokes, "Zootopia" takes the idea of animated family film into new terrain, combining a visually rich world with smart, timely ideas.
The thoughtful approach seems to be paying off. Critics have embraced the movie, which is rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and early box office reports suggest "Zootopia" may open nearly as strongly as another Disney Animation juggernaut, "Frozen," did in its first weekend.
Bush and Phil Johnston wrote the screenplay for "Zootopia," but a diverse group of seven writers receive story credit, including "Frozen's" Jennifer Lee, former "Simpsons" writer Jim Reardon and story artist Josie Trinidad. Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a bunny who gets a shot at her dream of becoming a cop thanks to the city of Zootopia's new Mammal Inclusion Initiative. Jason Bateman supplies the voice of Judy's underachieving nemesis/sidekick, a small-time hustler fox named Nick Wilde; Idris Elba is Judy's boss, the intimidating Cape buffalo police chief; and Jenny Slate is the assistant mayor, a sheep just trying to give another prey animal a hoof up in the world.
Howard pitched the film to Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter five years ago, on the hopes of working on a movie like one of his favorites, the 1973 Disney animated version of "Robin Hood," but using the tools of modern computer animation.
"[Lasseter] said, 'I will fully support any movie that has animals running around in tiny clothes,'" Howard said. "He hugged me and picked me up and carried me around. He was very enthusiastic."
A research trip to Kenya — specifically a watering hole where zebras and lions peacefully coexisted — inspired the filmmakers.
"The funny thing we noticed was that during the day lions would come in and drink right next to zebra and gazelle, all these animals they normally eat, and it was fine," Howard said. "The rules are different during the day. We thought that's very much like human beings, you have this predator group and prey group.
"They don't always get along, but for some things they have to figure out how to coexist. We started thinking about the predator group and prey group and if they evolved, would they put that deep-set fear about each other aside completely or would it still be there somehow?"
The filmmakers brought in an array of experts as they designed the world, from zoologists, who advised on how each species should move, to specialists on the Americans With Disabilities Act, who helped construct a city where a 2-inch character and a 27-foot character could coexist, to HVAC system designers, who puzzled over how to build a tundra neighborhood next to a desert one.
Female police officers spoke with the filmmakers about challenges they faced — including having trouble finding male officers willing to partner with them. In the case of Judy Hopps, who also faces difficulty being taken seriously as a police officer, animators used small scale to dramatize her struggle, as she struggled to hop up on a chair in the police department.
"We go more species-ist rather than gender-based," said Howard. "The fact that Judy is actually struggling against this is pretty relatable for a lot of people."
One dilemma the directors faced was whether to have animals play to or against stereotype. Ultimately they decided on a mix of the two — slow-as-molasses sloths, hilariously, staff the Zootopia DMV in a scene that will resonate for anyone who has ever waited to renew a driver's license. But Judy Hopps is the opposite of a timid bunny. And some animals — like a fierce, tiny shrew who plays a Vito Corleone type, are an amusing mix of biological accuracy and visual joke.
"For a while we were saying, 'Every animal should be their cliche,'" Moore said. "But that's not servicing the theme at all. And then it turned into, 'Every animal should be the opposite of their cliche.' It was a journey to get to the point of, the world is not black and white. There's so much gray.
"So maybe in the world of Zootopia it should be that sometimes they are cliche, sometimes they aren't. That gives us that gray that better reflects our world. It makes Judy's struggle and journey more authentic. Are we just who we're born to be or do we have control over our destiny?'"
In the writers room, the filmmakers tangled over their own experiences with bias. The "articulate" joke, for instance, came from one white writer's mother, who often applied the word to nonwhite people she admired.
"We liked this idea of Judy being a character who thinks she's all together, but she's flawed," Moore said. "She's like Pinocchio, she's very appealing, but she makes tons of mistakes. We wanted someone who's going to learn something. Story sessions were in general the kind of opening up of oneself, talking about the things we're afraid of."
Another scene, in which Judy Hopps breaks down crying, inspired a conversation about how female characters express emotion, with Lee acting the scene in the writers' room and supervising animator Kira Lehtomaki toying with how to communicate that the character was trying to hold herself back.
"When you had her completely losing it, she felt weak," Howard said. "But when we took all that emotion away it was, 'Does she care at all?'" (In the end the group settled on a performance inspired by a Meg Ryan scene in "When Harry Met Sally.")
As they worked, the filmmakers agreed on one thing — taking the long view.
"We were looking for universal truisms that aren't just a blip for today and they're gone," Moore said. "We were trying to find something more than just what's on the surface."
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