In its 92-year history, Walt Disney Animation Studios has created a legacy of talking-animal films, from Mickey Mouse’s debut short Steamboat Willie to Bambi, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and The Lion King. They will be adding another memorable story to that list with next spring’s feature film Zootopia. Optimistic Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) believes that anyone can do anything, but soon discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy and she’s going to have to prove herself by solving a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman).
During an early press day for the film, which opens in theaters on March 4, 2016, Walt Disney Animation President Andrew Millstein spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how much Zootopia has evolved, much like all of their animated features, why it’s such an unexpected film, and the challenges specific to making human-like animals relatable to an audience. He also talked about creating new stories vs. exploring sequels, whether they’d like to do another Big Hero 6 film, what makes the upcoming Moana so magical and special, whether there could be an animated TRON feature, and that there is no schedule for Wreck-It Ralph 2 yet.
Collider: It’s so interesting to see how much this film has evolved, just since D23.
ANDREW MILLSTEIN: Once you really lock into what the film is, and the crew gets momentum and they know who the characters are, you can actually start to change things more rapidly. There’s less confusion. And then, you actually start to customize the animation based on what the voice talent brings to the role.
What are you most excited about people getting to see with Zootopia?
MILLSTEIN: I’m excited about this film for a variety of reasons. I can’t really limit it to just one thing. At the broadest level, what excites me most about Zootopia is just how surprising it is. I think that our audiences, domestically and around the world, are going to appreciate just how much it pushes the expectation of what a Disney film is and can be. It’s an incredibly surprising film. It’s tremendously beautiful and artful. I think that people are going to be really excited by the technology in the film, and how that’s bringing the animation to life and how it’s bringing the fur to life on our characters. If you look at the quality of the animation and the detail in the animation, it’s stunning. I’m also really excited by just how comedic it is, and the fact that it’s a great action adventure and it’s also about something. It’s a really full package. It’s great cinema.
Are there challenges specific to making human-like animals relatable to an audience?
MILLSTEIN: I think the challenge is to actually find what each of these species is, and then take the unique characteristics of those animals and infuse your character with that. That’s where you get the comedy from. It allows you to caricature those attributes a bit. And then, it’s great casting. You really have to find the voice casting that doesn’t take you out of the character, so that you say, “Oh, that’s that person.” It has to feel like that character, which is an animal. And I think that they’ve done a brilliant job with the casting on this. Also, doing the research into the species and how they behave, look and move really informed the decisions they’ve made.
From a studio standpoint, how challenging is it to find a balance between having original content for the studio while also satisfying audience demand for sequels?
MILLSTEIN: It’s really pretty easy, to be honest with you. We really defer to our filmmakers. If they want to make something that’s based on a film that they’ve made, great. And if they want to go explore and create new worlds with new characters in new stories, that’s great, too. It’s part of what makes [Disney Animation] unique and it’s why our filmmakers want to stay here.
Are you always developing sequels that we don’t know about, and then only announce them once they’re working?
MILLSTEIN: Whether they’re sequels or new ideas, we don’t put things into development that we think we’ll do only if they work. Early, they don’t work. And late, they don’t work. We know that. So, what we know how to do is make them work. If we were making decisions about what might not be working, we wouldn’t make any movies. Seriously. I’m not being facetious. That’s how the process is. The genius of the organization is that you have this collective problem-solving and collective ownership because they’re all bad early. They’re really bad.
When you see the finished product, it seems crazy that they could ever be bad.
MILLSTEIN: They’re bad, trust me. Sometimes they’re bad too long. You know that and you get used to this idea that they’re all very complicated and they all have tremendous challenges, but you have this great group of people who are going to lean in and work diligently and rigorously to solve those problems.
Big Hero 6 was a film that audiences really loved, and it felt like the story was only just beginning. Is that something you’d like to further explore with another film?
MILLSTEIN: Yeah, if the filmmakers are interested in taking that further, without a doubt. It could lend itself to it. But it’s really up to them, if that’s something they want to do. They have to live with it for years, in that world, with those characters and with new characters. If they’re not interested in letting that world occupy their brain for that long, then it’s not going to happen. But if they’re interested in it, then it can happen.
One of the films people most responded to at D23 was Moana. What makes that film so special?
MILLSTEIN: I’m excited about that. Every film is different, and I’m excited about that for a lot of different reasons. When you go back to all of the different elements for that particular story, the fact that it’s set in a pre-historical context and it’s inspired by these great stories in Oceania, you have to figure out how to make that incredibly relevant. We’re creating songs for the story, and we have tremendous talent. It’s stunningly beautiful. It’s a place that you want to be. You want to immerse yourself in that environment, in that water, on those islands. There’s just going to be a lot of magic to the film, literally and figuratively. You can feel it. There’s great talent connected to it, with the voice talent, the musical talent, the writing talent, and the directing talent. It’s an exciting project. It’s emotional.
Since it doesn’t seem as though there will be another live-action TRON film, could you ever see doing an animated feature in that world?
MILLSTEIN: We don’t think about it, really. If our filmmakers have a deep connection to it and want to take it in that direction, we could certainly double back around to the live-action group and ask them what they have in mind for it and if it’s something they’d be interested in, but we’d have to see. We don’t really plan our films around those kinds of ideas.
Any idea when Wreck-It Ralph 2 is coming?
MILLSTEIN: I’m not sure yet. Wreck-It Ralph was fantastic.
Zootopia opens in theaters on March 4, 2016.