Zootopia was a hit at the box office after its release this March, and now, months later, the film has taken on a second life as an awards darling. The cleverly constructed, and very funny, allegory about prejudice already made it into AFI’s top 10 films of the year. Then, on Sunday night, it took home Best Animated Feature at the Critics’ Choice Awards; on Monday morning, it earned a Golden Globe nomination. Vulture caught up with Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore after the Globes announcement to discuss how the film has fared in the wake of Trump, the joys of working on original stories, and why they’re glad everyone’s taking animation more seriously.
How was your day after you learned about the nomination?
Rich Moore: It’s nice to wake up to that. That’s good. I got a text at 5:20 or 5:25 [in the] morning. But that’s nice.
Byron Howard: I had already been up for an hour.
RM: Were you on Twitter?
BH: I got an early run in.
And you were at the Critics’ Choice Awards as well.
BH: We won [Sunday] night, which was terrific. We were saying earlier, how great a year it’s been for animation and how diverse all the films are. We’re a very small community of filmmakers. We all kind of know each other, so we all root for each other’s films regardless of if we’re competing with them. We’re very happy to be included.
Zootopia came out earlier in the year, but it’s still stuck around around and in people’s minds.
RM: I was afraid that people would forget about us. It came out in early March and some people were like, “Zootopia, wasn’t that last year?” The making of the film feels like a really long time ago for me. As the award season kind of starts up and I’m watching the movie again, it feels like so much has happened since it came out, politically. And a lot has happened. It makes me feel like the film is still relevant. It’s relevant to the things that are happening, even more so than just eight months ago when it came out.
BH: This year has gotten crazier and crazier.
RM: Just when I thought that things couldn’t go one more step, they have. To be part of a film like this … I think that it’s unusual that an animated film takes on subjects of racism and bias and discrimination. And it’s really an honor to be a co-director with Byron on this film that takes on those very topics. It’s humbling to be part of the conversations in a way that animated films usually aren’t.
Was there any hesitation in constructing this whole allegory and wondering whether or not it would work?
BH: It’s funny, when I think it first occurred to us, it did seem that well this seems super risky to try to make a Disney comedy about bias and stereotypes and racism was going to be a good idea. But it evolved very naturally from our research into animals. We were in Africa and we were watching these animals around the watering hole and we saw this lion drinking next to these zebras, which it normally eats. But everyone is behaving and we thought, That’s just like a city, like a human city where two groups — predator and prey — don’t get along sometimes but they have to find a way to coexist. Wouldn’t that be great if we thought of this as a 21st-century fable that talks about bias and discrimination and marginalization and personal empowerment? It got deep very quickly. We had an amazing professor named Dr. Shakti Butler who really took us into the depths of understanding the real roots of bias, and not just bias, but modern bias. It feels different today than it did back in the civil rights era or even back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Bias can be very subtle sometimes. It’s not always the stuff that’s in your face that’s the most dangerous. When the film really started to deal with that, that’s when it started to feel very contemporary.
When you’re looking at making animated movies, do you feel like there’s more of an opportunity to push further into these ideas now?
RM: I think so. I think that we’re in an age where there isn’t one predominant medium for making an animated film like it’s been in the past. Animation is not pigeon-holed. The second golden age of Disney in the ‘90s was all traditional hand-drawn. You didn’t see feature films in stop-motion like the ones that Laika is making. Then, at the beginning of the CG revolution, everyone ran to bat and all the films were kind of in that one medium. Today, it’s just that there’s traditional hand-drawn, there’s stop-motion, CG — all of them are playing well, are well-respected, and are admired by all the people making the films.
BH: I think that what makes animation so remarkable, no matter what form of animation you’re talking about, is that we have the most flexibility to customize the world and the characters and the storytelling to suit whatever kind of story we’re telling. Everything in Zootopia is very purposeful about what kind of animals we chose, what we’re representing on the screen, what the world is like. Same thing with My Life As a Zucchini. I just watched that the other day which is great because the characters looked like children’s drawings and it’s a story about children’s experience. It’s great to see how every filmmaking team can really focus the presentation of what the audience is seeing and experiencing to suit each individual story.
JM: You guys got the chance to develop a completely original world, which seems rare in Hollywood now.
RM: Absolutely. I think our business relies a little too much on franchises and sequels. I’m not one to speak; I’m making Wreck-It Ralph 2 right now, but it comes out of the love for those characters of the first film. But I think that it’s really important that — and I think that this is true for our studio at large — we can’t just keep making the same thing over and over again. In filmmaking in general, the audience wants to be surprised. They want to have variety in what they watch and enjoy. Sure, it’s great to revisit old friends or franchises, but if we’re not expanding the parameters of entertainment and storytelling, then I don’t know what we’re doing. Our studio, Disney Animation, tries to give the audience a wide variety of different types of movies. Zootopia has deep social commentary, but then we have the musicals like Moana and Frozen that are rooted in traditional Disney musicals. We have traditional story-book types of films, like Gigantic coming up, and then modern stories like Wreck-It Ralph. Animation, had problems in the past of giving the audience the same thing over and over again. We don’t want to do that.
Byron, I know you’re working on something with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
BH: It’s exciting. While I think that’s a great thing, we get to create new worlds and hopefully if the world and the characters work with the audience and people want to see more of them, we have the option to expand on that. Or we can dive into something brand-new. And it’s a very exciting thing to think about, working with Lin — he’s a genius. I’m a huge admirer of Hamilton. It’s so early but there’s so much good stuff coming from Disney in the next couple of years that we’re so excited about, but we can’t talk about. It’s going to be great, trust me.
The film takes several twists and turns. Do you think that children watching the film understand the message fully?
RM: During these times, where there’s a lot of strife and there’s a lot of ruling by fear, it’s obvious. It’s right before our eyes. As an individual, it gives me hope, that the young people, why would these ideas of judging people based on what they look like, even be on their radar? It’s a learned phenomenon. It’s not in our DNA to discriminate. So I think that they’re understanding it, maybe not on an intellectual level for those who have lived through those experiences, like adults have been the victim of those experiences. I think it fortifies their pure thinking of how we communicate with others.
BH: I agree with what Rich said. It just feels like it’s a message for the adults. The kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. They’ve got it figured out and then they get all these other messages that sort of send them off track as adults. We have a great admiration and respect for young people and children in general just because there’s so much unconditional acceptance that we can all learn from. I think that it’s even Judy’s journey in that in the movie where she figures out, Okay, along the way I picked up some stuff that I don’t need anymore. I didn’t realize that this flaw was in me, but I can recognize that now and work to move past it. I think that’s also why the movie, in these weird times, helps to give people hope without pandering or presenting some sort of pat answer for really difficult problems. It’s always meant to be a hopeful film, but also a film that has a sense of realism to it.
She needs to recognize her own faults.
RM: Right. I remember when I was a child, or young person,watching movies. Sometimes films would talk about topics that I had not experienced, but it put it on my radar that this is a type of thing that exists in the world. I could prepare myself how I would react when I was faced with it. I think it serves in that way. It’s just a view into the realism of the world for a young person. Maybe this is a good suggestion on how to conduct yourself when faced with these kind of problems.
This interview has been edited and condensed.