Walt Disney Animation Studios has a long — and supremely lucrative — history of crafting its movies around a princess finding her white knight, from Snow White and the Prince in the studio’s first animated feature in 1937, to Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in 2010’s Tangled.
But Zootopia, the studio’s newest feature film, is noticeably different.
“Audience expectations point towards female characters needing a love interest, and that is not the case,” the movie’s co-writer Phil Johnston told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “The more sophisticated we get as storytellers and stray from that old formula that is so tired, the more exciting films are going to get and the more interesting female characters we'll see in movies.”
Enter Zootopia’s driven, resilient, and love-interest-free protagonist, Judy Hopps. She’s a small-town bunny who spends her days dreaming of having a rich professional life, not the day her prince will come.
Building an entire movie on one’s desire to be professionally accomplished is something live-action films — like Spotlight, the recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture — have executed to great acclaim. But in the world of mainstream animation, it’s unheard of for a female lead’s only love interest to be her job. To Disney’s credit, no one ever suggested that the film or Judy would be better served by introducing a love interest. “I do think it’s a little bit revolutionary, unfortunately,” Johnston said. “I think it's an empowering message for girls and boys that she is so passionate and so strong-willed that she is going to get what she wants.”
When Judy is first introduced as a plucky 9-year-old (voiced initially by Della Saba and later, as an adult, by Once Upon a Time star Ginnifer Goodwin), she has her heart set on a life that’s far past her parents’ carrot-farming footsteps. She wants to be a police officer, despite everyone constantly reminding her that there has never been a rabbit cop before.
But Judy’s determination to accomplish her professional goals will not be deterred by her doubters, by her parents (“If you never try anything new, you never fail,” her dad offers), or by society, which is not designed for a little bunny to — literally at times — fill such big shoes.
But Judy was not originally the main character in Zootopia. Instead, the film was focused on a fox, Nick Wilde, a sketchy con artist (voiced by Jason Bateman). “People weren't emotionally connecting to him,” co-writer and co-director Jared Bush told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “Everybody got Judy immediately. They really understood her character, and people kept saying, ‘Is there any way to make her the main character?’”
They found a way, thanks, in large part, to Goodwin, whom the directors credited with giving Judy her strength, her deeply rooted conviction, and her unyielding drive. “We had Judy written, initially, as more of a swaggery, John Wayne kind of true-blue kind of cop,” director Byron Howard, who also has a "story by" credit on the film, told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. But when Goodwin read the part, it didn’t sound authentic, so they let the actor take Judy where she felt was right.
“As soon as we let Ginnifer go with it, Judy became this almost Frank Capra-esque character with a very pure core who sounded intelligent but innocent — someone who is a little naive, but has big aspirations for what they can do in the world,” Howard said. “We looked at Capra's movies and compared [Judy] to a lot of those Capra characters who have such high expectations of the world around them and these pure philosophies where you see the cynical world poke at them over and over so you wonder if this purity — this character's heart — can survive the tough world.”
Judy gets her first taste of just how tough the world really is while working as a meter maid, the only job her new boss, Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), believes she’s capable of. It’s a momentary blow to Judy’s dreams, but as she says, “No one tells me what I can or can’t be,” so she sets out to be the best meter maid possible. While Judy is issuing parking tickets, she unwittingly stumbles upon Nick mid-scam and gets hustled herself, another early ding to her dream. But Judy soon gives Nick a taste of his own medicine and ends up conning him into helping her solve a case that she’s staked her job on.
Judy’s resilient spirit is another characteristic that makes her such an anomaly for animated female characters. “It was really important for us that she, as our main character, be this underdog that's trying to achieve something that no one else in her world has tried to do before,” director Rich Moore, who also has a "story by" credit on the film, told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. “She’s kind of this walking contradiction, and that adds to her struggle. … The rest of this world sees her as this cute little doll, and Nick is always pointing that out to her: ‘You look like a toy that should be back on the shelf of the toy store.’”
And they highlight Judy’s proportions even more by comparing her to all the other animals on the force, like elephants, lions, wolves, and rhinoceroses. “When she's talking to her chief, there's that great wide shot of them standing at the door and she's just this tiny little thing with this massive buffalo lording over her. That composition to me illustrates what she's up against,” Moore said.
While it remains to be seen what kind of impact Zootopia will actually have when it opens on March 4, Judy Hopps costumes are likely to be big this Halloween, based on the unofficial focus group Johnston recently ran with his 6-year-old daughter. “My daughter [just] saw it for the first time and said, ‘My favorite character is Judy Hopps because she sticks up for people.’ That's just cool,” he said. “It's important to me to put strong, smart female characters out into the world for her … I'm so proud of that character and the difference she's going to make in the world.”