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'Zootopia' is Disney’s best animated opening ever — thanks to Pixar

Disney's Zootopia scored big by managing to appeal to kids while still engaging adults.
Disney's Zootopia scored big by managing to appeal to kids while still engaging adults.

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The movie “Zootopia” set a record over the weekend for the best opening ever for a movie produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, with estimated ticket sales of more than $73 million. That was about $10 million more than the film was expected to earn in its first weekend — and the film is also doing big business overseas.

The debut for "Zootopia" was better even than Disney’s blockbuster, “Frozen,” which opened to $67.4 million dollars three years ago.

But not that long ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios was struggling so badly that its parent, the Walt Disney Co., was essentially forced to buy its top rival, Pixar Animation Studios, for $7.6 billion in 2006.

In addition to continuing  to run Pixar, two of that studio’s top executives — John Lasseter and Ed Catmull — also overhauled Disney’s own animation unit in the wake of the deal. And pretty soon, instead of turning out underwhelming titles like “Home on the Range,” “Atlantis,” and “Treasure Planet,” Disney’s animation department was making much better and more popular movies.

Brent Lang, senior media and film reporter at Variety, spoke with The Frame’s John Horn about Disney’s Pixar takeover and what led to the box office success of “Zootopia.”

Interview Highlights 

Take us back 10 years-or-so ago when Disney shells out almost $8 billion to buy Pixar. What was going on at Disney then and what was the game plan?

I think a case can be made that it was really a move of desperation. Their back was to the wall. Walt Disney Animation had never been at a lower point ... The magic touch was clearly gone and the momentum was behind Pixar. They were creating the new generation of animation icons with “Finding Nemo” and “Toy Story” and “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles.” And [Pixar] had really just taken Disney’s mantle and become the destination for family fare. So at that point Disney didn’t have a choice. It knew it needed to do something, it needed to do something dramatic, and that’s why it made that kind of expensive bet.

Pixar executives, including Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, looked at Disney’s animation studio and decided it needed some changes. What was their philosophy and what were the kinds of things they did inside Disney?

Well, they basically Pixar-fied it. They took those elements of Pixar that were working — in particular a real emphasis on story, story structure, and [developed] a kind of brain trust where everybody weighs in on development. And they really emphasized moving away from the tried-and-true and [began] thinking outside the box and getting away from just going into generic territory.

One of the things that Pixar does very well is it makes movies that play to all different sorts of audiences. Is the same true of “Zootopia”? That adults and kids alike enjoy it?

Absolutely ... because that’s one of the major principles for example that Pixar operates in. People there are supposed to make movies they would want to see, not what they think kids would want to see. “Zootopia” is almost a kind of noir-ish movie — albeit instead of Philip Marlowe you have a bunny rabbit as a cop.

One of the other things that a lot of people have picked up on with “Zootopia” is that it’s not totally mindless, that there’s a message to the movie, that it has something to say about social issues and about diversity and tolerance. Is that a way in which Pixar is going too, in terms of making sure that the movies have something larger to say?

Well, it’s certainly relevant. Just look at the controversy that sprung up around the Oscars this year. And it’s interesting you say that, because, in his review for Variety, our critic Peter Debruge noted that, in many ways, “Zootopia” is a corrective to “Song of the South,” that infamously racist [1946] film that Disney produced ... a film that has not seen the light of day in the modern era. So it’s clear that they are aware of what our melting pot culture looks like right now and they are shining a light to it. And they’re interested in contributing to the dialogue that’s going on, not just in culture, but in all elements of society.

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