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'Zootopia' was a creative labor of love for veteran Disney directors

Over the weekend, Disney took audiences to an imaginary world where animals walk and talk and dress like human beings. The film set a new record for Walt Disney Animation Studios' biggest three-day opening, according to Box Office Mojo. It grossed more than $75 million domestically, surpassing "Frozen's" $67.4 million opening weekend.

But “Zootopia” isn’t all sunshine and cuteness. Underneath the impressive exterior, a compelling mystery lies at the heart of Disney’s unique new film.

The men behind the mystery are Byron Howard and Rich Moore, who co-directed the movie. Howard and Moore are veterans in the animation business, and their experience and passion was critical to the dynamic journey that brought Disney's sophisticated new film to the big screen.

Howard got a green light on the idea early on, he said, smiling as he recalled how producer John Lasseter offered full support to “any film that features animals walking around in tiny clothing.” But it took a while for the movie’s final concept to take shape.

“It was originally pitched as a spy movie,” Moore said, “with a jack rabbit that was kind of this James Bond character.”

But the spy thing had been done, so instead the filmmakers zeroed in on the concept of an animal metropolis, and “Zootopia” was born.

The world portrayed in “Zootopia” isn’t what viewers know the animal kingdom to be in reality. Preliminary research for the film revealed that 90 percent of mammals are prey to the other 10 percent, but the animals in “Zootopia” have evolved beyond a predator-prey relationship.

“If they did get to that point,” Moore said, “what would happen if that social contract got broken?”

Viewers explore that idea through the eyes of an innocent bunny cop named Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who investigates a missing persons case and uncovers a citywide conspiracy to pit the predators against the prey. But Disney’s original plan was to use a shifty fox named Nick as the protagonist.

“The problem was that Nick was such a cynical character in that version that it was difficult for the audience to feel comfortable with the city,” Moore said.

The story refused to gel and seemed to be fighting back, Moore said, but “the moment that we swapped our characters and made Judy the lead … it was amazing.”

Judy’s experience echoes a positive message about dealing with our own fears and prejudices.

“It’s tough sometimes for groups of people and animals to let go of that fear that can so easily bubble back up to the surface,” Howard said. He went on to say that directors didn’t set out to make a preachy movie, but Judy “figures out that the way to really change things is to look within.”

“If we can be the best people we are as individuals, then that’s the way to change the world,” Howard said.

One of “Zootopia’s” greatest strengths is the way it balances its humor in a way that appeals to both children and adults, and that final product is a credit to its seasoned directors. The combination of kid-friendly sight gags and sly pop-culture references is no surprise when you dig into the directors’ back catalog. Howard also directed 2010’s “Tangled,” and in addition to helming “Wreck-It Ralph” in 2012, Moore directed 17 episodes of “The Simpsons” in the series’ early 1990s heyday, including fan favorites such as “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Flaming Moe’s.”

Howard and Moore are working hard in a field they love. Howard said the diversity of his job, combining his passion for art and cinematography and music, is his driving force. For Moore, it’s a little different.

“It wasn’t until I was in that world, directing shows and movies, that I realized basically my job is to give back to another generation what the generation before me gave to me,” he said.

“It’s our job now,” he continued. “It’s our calling now to do that for the next generation.”

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at