Yours is a fairly modern occupation, and one essential to good business-to-business relationships. Especially, say, if you’re partnered with Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, ABC Television Studios, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, and a slew of merchandising subsidiaries. However, the characters from The Magical World of Disney™ have almost always been removed from this reality. They normally exist in a pre-industrial age, free of commercial bombardment and even 20th century detached irony. That’s all changed with Zootopia.
Or has it?
It’s true that the most iconic films from Walt Disney Animation Studios, up to and including the smash-hit Frozen, were based on fairy tales and legends. Failing that, talking animals have usually filled the void to deliver that signature Disney je ne sais quoi. But in the past few years, stories have shifted into the contemporary world (Wreck It Ralph, Meet the Robinsons) or future-fantasy (Treasure Planet, Big Hero 6). And when that happens, audiences usually smile and shrug, willing to enjoy the film as an independent entity, while quietly re-assuring ourselves that these aren’t the “real” Disney films. This is not something a person like you would ever admit to clients. You would try to spin them from seeing what everyone already knows is true. Because before the public ever buys in, your marketing partners have to.
So I’m curious – how did you really sell Zootopia? The first point you would no doubt lean on, is the talking animals. That’s the entire conceit behind the film – it exists in a world where mammals have evolved into bipedal bureaucrats and blue collar workers. This world-building is almost effortlessly introduced with a clever mix of humour, character development, and foreshadowing. Hops, a young bunny, is putting on a school play, explaining how the world used to be divided between predators and prey. The savage nature of this ancient history is played for laughs as the small-town residents recoil at the gory details of the natural world. Fast-forward a few years when Hops decides to pursue her dreams and become the first rabbit on the ZPD police force, and the film quickly shifts into a typical underdog (underbunny?) story.
What happens next is much less in line with prince and princesses saving their people, and more of a typical buddy-cop movie with a crime procedural plot. Or, again, is it? Paired with a sarcastic and sly fox, voiced (of course) by Jason Bateman, the two follow clues to uncover a web of corruption in the city. It’s a much more noir story than something normally associated with the Disney brand, but yet it still adheres to the same principles of chosen soldiers protecting the kingdom. There are also plenty of smart re-assurances throughout that this story has a solid moral compass, even if the late reveal of a femme fatale does threaten to turn an entire generation against a cuddly species.
A little more disconcerting is the integration of branded contemporary technology. While the product placement never felt entirely offensive, it did rub me the wrong way that an entire new society could be built, but the principle design of the iPhone would remain intact. That felt less about about making the audience feel at ease in Zootopia than it did your clients.
Most surprising of all, however, is the film’s barely hidden themes about racism and prejudice. While I’m sure you didn’t shy away from explaining these deeper levels of meanings to clients, where a “10% minority” is seen as being less evolved and more dangerous to the population, I can all but guarantee you assured them no actual ethnic stereotypes (such as, say, African animals and accents) would be employed to drive the metaphor home. And the film is richer as a result.
Ultimaely, the film made me laugh several times and moved me when it was supposed to. I felt a great sense of wonder when first being introduced to Zootopia, the city, even if the film never truly explored the world to its full potential. But that’s okay, this wasn’t really a Disney film, right?