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‘Zootopia’ directors carry on Disney tradition

Zootopia - Official Trailer by Walt Disney Pictures

In this animated movie out March 4, 2016, a fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy. (courtesy - Walt Disney Pictures)
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In this animated movie out March 4, 2016, a fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy. (courtesy - Walt Disney Pictures)

When directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore were mulling over what animal to use as Mr. Big, the mob boss in “Zootopia,” they consulted an animal expert.

They knew they wanted a smaller mammal, for better comical effect. The arctic shrew was his first choice, for he’s tiny and vicious.

“He told us that an arctic shrew is a carnivore who is constantly eating — three times his body weight a day. He said if you put four arctic shrews in a cage overnight, in the morning you would only have one fat shrew. So we thought this is the character to be our Marlon Brando,” Howard said.

That level of detail is customary for Howard and Moore, seasoned Disney veterans responsible for some iconic animation during the past 30 years. Howard directed the Oscar-nominated 2008 feature “Bolt” and “Tangled” in 2010, while Moore directed 2012’s Oscar nominee “Wreck-It Ralph.”

They recently stopped in St. Louis, meeting press at Café Kudzo at the St. Louis Zoo’s Living World, and later talking with moviegoers after a screening of their latest film, Disney’s 55th animated feature, which opened Friday.

The comedy-adventure is set in a teeming metropolis where predator and prey live in harmony. They deftly weave in points on diversity, friendship, loyalty, dreams and opportunities in the framework of a crime caper.

While skilled animators, story is everything to them.

Bob McCrea, an old Disney animator, said a good story can save weak animation but a weak story can hurt good animation, and that sunk right into me. There’s something so crystal clear about that. You must have a rock-solid story that intrigues the audience. You have to care enough about the characters.

Rich Moore on animated film priorities

“My first day at Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts), Bob McCrea, an old Disney animator (“Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”), said a good story can save weak animation, but a weak story can hurt good animation, and that sunk right into me,” Moore said. “There’s something so crystal clear about that. You must have a rock-solid story that intrigues the audience. You have to care enough about the characters.”

Cast of characters

Creating characters is a laborious process, but Howard said they spent a year collecting information on animals so that when they needed to solve a problem, they had resources to use.

“Every time we hit a roadblock, we could solve the problem with our research,” he said.

Inspired by Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and other Disney heroines, they wanted Judy Hopps, the first bunny on the police force, to be a thoroughly modern woman.

“Ariel was a living, breathing, real person, who had depth. We wanted our character to be very special,” Howard said.

Initially, the fox was to be the lead character, but they switched to Hopps because of her optimism and great idealism.

“She’s really like a Frank Capra character. She is driven, despite the reality. She’s smart, determined and capable, and she’s flawed, too,” Howard said.

“The fox (Nick Wilde) is completely different, and they’re good for each other. He gets hope back because of her, and they complement each other,” he said.

The directors had 100 percent control over voice casting, and they like to use distinctive personalities, and sometimes play against type.

Idris Elba, as the gruff police chief, was a good fit, but also brought out some of his goofy qualities. “He’s really funny, so that’s when personality influences us,” Moore said. “Our animators are freakishly good.”

Phil Johnston and Jared Bush wrote the screenplay, but Moore, Howard and several others contributed to the story.

The humor — and “Easter eggs” about other Disney films — are two things you notice in “Zootopia,” as it’s layered with humor targeted to adults and on a kids’ level, too. With nods to “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “Breaking Bad,” the movie is sprinkled with pop culture references.

Moore knows how to achieve the broad appeal from work on “The Simpsons.” He was one of the original three directors and was responsible for some of the most iconic episodes in the first five years, such as “Flaming Moe,” “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Cape Feare.”

He later served as supervising director for Gracie Films’ “The Critic.” Moore oversaw the creative development and production of Matt Groening’s “Futurama.”

Filled with wonder

From an early age, Moore and Howard were entranced by the art and scope of animation. Influenced by “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Robin Hood,” Howard appreciated how animation evolved in his lifetime.

Moore’s first moviegoing memory was seeing “Jungle Book” on the big screen with his entire family when he was 4 years old. He grew up in Oxnard, Calif.

“I remember it as clearly as yesterday. The curtain went up and there was this gigantic screen, and I was filled with wonder. We laughed, I even cried a little. I was transfixed. It got its hooks in me. I wanted more,” Moore said.

A doodler and daydreamer in school, he said he was “always looking out the window.”

On a path to become an animator, Moore said Disney changed his life, although he didn’t work there until after years in television.

“It hit me how those early films had impacted me. It really did set the foundation. It’s surreal to be working at the same place that inspired me as a 5-year-old,” he said. “My job is to inspire another generation.”

Howard studied cinematography, art and literature at The Evergreen State College in Washington. As a child growing up in Seattle, he had filled reams of computer paper with characters of his own creation.

However, he didn’t realize his career opportunities in animation until he visited Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, and saw a real animation studio at work there. In 1991, he became a tour guide at the attraction, and audited classes in figure drawing, to create a real portfolio.

In 1994, he worked as a clean-up artist on “Pocahontas,” primarily the John Henry character, then became a story artist on “Mulan,” supervising animator on “Lilo & Stitch” and ‘Brother Bear,” as well as doing character design, and eventually directed “Bolt,” then “Tangled.”

He credits other animators who took him under their wing for opportunities. The experienced animators demonstrated how to make characters more appealing and life-like, and that help raised the bar with every venture.

Injecting personality, vitality and charm into characters is a skill honed through collaboration and experience.

“Team members inspire each other to achieve something greater than they could alone,” he said.

Moore explained the mentorship legacy instilled at Walt Disney Studios.

“Byron learned from Aaron Blaise, who was mentored by Glen Keane, who was mentored by Ollie Johnston, one of the Nine Old Men (core Disney animators in 1930s), and Freddie Moore from the Golden Age, sketching on pen and paper. They shared their fundamentals and passed along this legacy,” he said.

“It’s a great place to work because we support each other,” Moore said.

Disney Animation Studios is nearing a century of quality work in the industry.

“That’s what keeps it alive,” he said, “the dreams and work of the artists.”

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