September 22, 2013 posted by

Zootopia and Other Animal Worlds

ZOOTOPIA (Working Title)

The third Disney D23 Expo for the studio’s fans, this August 9th, included an “Art and Imagination” presentation that showcased previews of Disney’s planned theatrical features through 2016. At the far end was Zootopia (working title), a talking-animal picture about a fox, Nick Wilde, “framed for a crime he didn’t commit”, who is forced to team up with a Javert-like policerabbit, Lt. Judy Hops (or Hopps), when they are both targeted by powerful criminals.

All of the animation news sites have reported on this, and have shown the same publicity image (above) of a noticeably bigger fox amidst a crowd of rabbits at an animal train terminal. Some have cropped this image to show only the fox and the rabbits, but others present the full view of the picture, which turns out to be important because it shows shadowy other animals in the far background such as an elephant, and indicates that they are huge compared to the fox and the rabbits!

robin_hood200The news websites note that this is the first Disney all-funny-animal feature since Robin Hood in 1973. (Everyone seems to have forgotten about Chicken Little (2005). Wishful thinking?) Other theatrical features centered around talking animals have shown them as usually miniature imitation humans unnoticed in the human world, such as The Great Mouse Detective (1986) or The Rescuers Down Under (1990). But the Disney announcement claims that Zootopia will be original. “The twist is that the entire film is set in a world in which humans never existed (a la Pixar’s Cars) and animals have built everything.” Entertainment Weekly says that scheduled director Byron Howard told the D23 audience, “Just like New York has Chinatown and Little Italy, Zootopia has distinct regional neighborhoods like Tundratown, Sahara Square, Little Rodenta (the bad part of town, populated by vermin), and Burrowborough, populated by millions of bunnies.”

This has set off speculation as to just what this original animal world will be like. The worlds of Robin Hood, Chicken Little, and such Disney TV animated programs as DuckTales and TaleSpin do not have any humans, but they all portray the funny-animal characters as surrogate humans: They are all roughly the same size, eat the same human diet, live in the same human civilizations, and so on. The Zootopia world will present the animals as all wearing clothes and walking upright, but what then? Will they stay true to their natural sizes? How do you design a single civilization for all animals from mice to elephants and giraffes? Will Zootopia acknowledge the difference between predator and prey animals?

fritz150The first animated features to star talking animals, rather than to use them as incidental characters like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940), were the 1941 Dumbo (circus animals) and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (garden insects). These were of the imitation-humans-in-the-human-world variety. The first to show a talking-animal world without humans was Fritz the Cat (1972). Again, this featured the animal cast as surrogate humans; they all lived in a human-style city, were the same size, and did nothing (including the birds) that humans would not be able to do. So for Zootopia to present something “different”, it will have to SHOW something different; a realistic range of animal sizes, or a standoff between carnivores and herbivores with the omnivores mediating between the two, perhaps.

How original is this? In cinema, very. I don’t believe that there are any animated or live-action features that have ever shown a true multi-animal civilization. In other media, it is fairly common.

Online talking-animal comic strips like Bill Holbrook’s Kevin & Kell (started 1995), Jenner’s Doc Rat (started 2006), and John “The Gneech” Robey’s discontinued The Suburban Jungle “starring Tiffany Tiger” (1999-2009), all feature(d) an animal civilization with “predation” by carnivores, under set laws. In comic books, Disney’s “Li’l Bad Wolf” stories in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories featured Li’l Wolf and his Big Bad Wolf father, who was always trying to catch and eat Li’l Wolf’s friends, the Three Little Pigs.

chaminouIn Belgian cartoonist Raymond Macherot’s Inspector Chaminou series (one hardcover comic strip adventure, Chaminou et le Khrompire, 1965; sequels produced by others after Macherot’s retirement in the 1990s under his supervision until his death), eating one’s fellow-citizen is illegal in the Kingdom of Zoolande, but there is a criminal secret society of carnivores who kidnap and feast on the herbivores. (To digress completely, let me take this opportunity to complain about the difference between American comic-book artists and Franco-Belgian comic-book artists. American artists, Carl Barks for example, wrote & drew many classic stories that were on sale for one or two months each, and MIGHT be reprinted years later, with the publisher getting all the revenue. Macherot wrote/drew this one 48-page story for Spirou magazine during 1964, it was reprinted as a hardcover cartoon-art novel in 1965, and it has been reprinted ever since, with Macherot getting royalties during his lifetime – I suppose they go to his estate today. Macherot produced many other funny-animal novels during his lifetime, of course, which he got reprint royalties on; Fantagraphics is publishing American editions of them today.)

So animation fans will be watching the progress of Zootopia to see whether its plot develops a revolutionary new (for animated movies) story concept, or whether it is just another talking-animal civilization that is just like the human world. Slash/Film said on August 9th (story by Russ Fischer), “Tangled director Byron Howard will direct the film from a script by Jared Bush. They’ve been working for the last year and a half on the project, spurred in in part by a love of the Disney Robin Hood feature. Howard wanted to do a film with animals in clothing. They hope to continue ‘Disney’s amazing legacy of animal-based animated films.’[…]

There’s also the promise of a unique vision. We’ve seen movies featuring animals in the natural world, and in the human world, but we’ve never seen animals in a modern world designed by animals. What would animals do differently than humans would? So the filmmakers talked to experts, from anthropologists to safari guides to imagineers as they began to design an animal civilization which is ‘distinctly animal.’

In the story, a mountain is an apartment building, and there are ‘habitats’ instead of neighborhoods. Tundratown features polar bear karaoke, and the strange limo/fridge hybrid refrigerzine. Sahara Square is Dubai and Monte Carlo rolled into one, a desert setting, with the Oasis Hotel designed like a palm tree. The Wall Street Gerbil is reading material.

Little Rodencha features tiny streets for rodents; in general, different sizes of animals get, as you’d expect, different sized habitats. Rabbits are in the Burrow Borough, in the Rabbit Transit District. That area has a look influenced by the aesthetic of Studio Ghibli films.

The animals don’t always get along, which is a big problem in the city. The conflict can be simplified down to ‘flat teeth vs sharp teeth.’ Nick Wilde, a fox, and Lt. Judy Hopps, a rabbit, begin as natural enemies who evolve into friends by the end of the story.”

It does sound promising.

Gingitsune (Silver Fox)

This is really a different subject, but I wanted to make note of an intriguing new anime series. Here are two trailers (below), the website, and the Wikipedia entry for the Japanese TV Gingitsune (Silver Fox). Directed by Misawa Shin (Shin Misawa, American-style; reverse all names here) and produced by Studio Diomedéa, the show will premiere on October 6th at 1:05 a.m.(!) The number of episodes have not been announced yet, but here are plot synopses from the Moetron and Anime News Network websites:

“When her mother passed away at a young age, Saeki Makoto was given the power to see Gintaro, one of the gods’ agents that have been protecting the small Inari temple since the Edo era. As only one person of the family can see the fox spirit, Gintaro, naturally as the only blood relative, when her mother passed on, Makoto inherited the sole power to talk to and see him. Although they have their differences, Makoto, with the help of Gintaro’s power, help the people of their community deal and solve their problems.”


“Makoto is the fifteenth generation heiress of a small shrine to the god Inari. Her father is still the shrine’s priest, but Inari’s divine messenger, Gintarou, has appeared to Makoto, marking her as true successor. Gintarou has the ability to see a short distance into the future and to find lost objects, but is unmotivated and foulmouthed. In spite of this, he becomes friends with Makoto, and together they help those who come to the shrine.”

This series is emphatically for Shinto parishioners, who believe that supernatural animal spirit-gods really do co-exist with humanity, and share the culture of pre-Westernized Japan along with the physical modern Japan. (I was bemused several years ago to find out that there is not only a Shinto god of video recorders, but that there are separate gods for VHS and Betamax recorders. I suppose that there is a god of DVD players today. I can’t quite imagine a supernatural anthropomorphized VHS or Betamax player in ancient Japanese society.) I predict that Gingitsune will be a massive failure if it is ever brought to America, because there are just not enough Shinto religionists in this country. Anime fans may watch the first two or three episodes to see what it is like, but then they will lose interest; especially if this is a soap opera without much melodrama.

The anime TV series is an adaptation of the manga by Ochiai Sayori, running since 2008. The fourth link at upper right on the Gingitsune website shows the characters.


  • Technically speaking, “Chicken Little” had space aliens so it wasn’t all animals. But it’s pretty common for Hollywood to forget even recent history.

    My favorite is when an animated (or even live action) musical proclaims it’s wildly original in using songs to actually advance the story. As opposed to, say, dropping in the latest hit by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

  • If Gingitsune can help me understand the Shinto belief system better, I’ll definitely give it a shot; I love learning about other cultures.

    As for Zootopia, here’s hoping it lives up to its promising start.

  • How soon people forget Inuyasha. It seems like Gingitsune is a more benevolent creature than the dog-eared daemon of Takahashi-sensei’s long-running manga, but this is not the first time we’ve seen the more anthropomorphic creatures of Shinto mythology in anime and/or manga. The long-running trope of catgirls also has its origin in Shinto and in a type of Yokai (supernatural creatures) called bakeneko. There is also Pom Poko, the Studio Ghibli feature about shapeshifting Raccoon Dogs, aka Tanuki. Again, shapeshifting Tanuki Yokai are part of Shinto mythos too.

    • Reminded myself of the Shonen Jump manta “Shaman King” with it’s animal spirits that help out it’s characters including two at one point that were so inspired by Ren and Stumpy.

    • Hate my auto spell-checking Android tablet, but you get the idea.

    • I think that an important distinction between “Gingitsune” and anime like “Pom Poko” and “Inuyasha” is that “Gingitsune” appears to be made primarily for believers in the Shinto faith, whereas “Pom Poko” and “Inuyasha” were made for audiences who are aware of Shintoism but are not primarily believers in it. There have been anime TV series made for the Shinto believers before, such as “Kamichu”, which had animal spirits among the supporting characters. They may have had a few individual fans among the American anime fans who are seriously interested in the Japanese culture, but that is a distinct minority; not enough to have made the American license for “Kamichu” successful.

      And “Animalympics” (1979-80) is solidly in the tradition of animals all being basically the same size, eating the same diet, etc. It came after “Fritz the Cat” (1972). Incidentally, the version of “Animalympics” popular with the Furry fans is a special cut made by Mark Merlino (excellently done!) from the 1979 Winter Olympics half-hour TV special plus the never-broadcast 1980 Summer Olympics one-hour TV special. The video/DVD commercial movie is the unbroadcast one-hour TV special alone.

      “Zootopia” may be unpopular with those with pet mice and rats. Or pet gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc. There was a BBC news report just today (yesterday now) of a new species — not just a new type, but a new species — of rat discovered in the Moluccas in Indonesia.

    • “Incidentally, the version of “Animalympics” popular with the Furry fans is a special cut made by Mark Merlino (excellently done!) from the 1979 Winter Olympics half-hour TV special plus the never-broadcast 1980 Summer Olympics one-hour TV special. The video/DVD commercial movie is the unbroadcast one-hour TV special alone.:

      Don’t recall that one. Of course I was curious to see what the original NBC airing of the winter games portion was like personally, or the original short film that Lisberger made called “Animal Olympics” that led to the creation of those specials.

  • But what about “Animalympics (1979-1980)”?

    • I was thinking that same thing! ANIMALYMPICS today has a huge following with not animation fans per se, but the “furry” crowd. (I’m also a fan of that movie!) I get a feeling that ZOOTOPIA will be the spiritual successor to ANIMALYMPICS.

      As for CHICKEN LITTLE, it deserves to be forgotten. It was a disjointed mess, and a waste of great character/background design. It was Disney going solo at the time (when they split from Pixar for a short while), trying too hard to be Pixar, but with excess commercial baggage. And don’t get me started on when I first watched this on rental DVD with Mom! LOL!

    • That one wasn’t made by Disney.

    • Just so we’re on the same page (yes Nat, I know), Animalympics certainly wasn’t made by Disney, though some of it’s staff worked for them later. Never saw Chicken Little and glad not to (though I bothered seeing Meet the Robinsons since it was in 3-D and I had to see what that fuss was about).

    • “Animalympics” was the only movie made by Lisberger Studios. It was supposed to launch a major new animation studio, but when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, the TV network that had contracted with Lisberger to show the Summer Olympics TV special reneged on the contract, apparently legally successfully, and Stephen Lisberger’s studio went bankrupt. He sold his intended second movie, “Tron”, to Disney, but “Tron” was not initially a success for Disney, either. Incidentally, “Animalympics” is on YouTube today, and I highly recommend it.

    • “Incidentally, “Animalympics” is on YouTube today, and I highly recommend it.:”

      You can’t say “No” to that! Much easier than the time I picked it up for $3 at a supermarket checkout aisle out of curiosity and loved what I saw despite the poor quality tape itself.

    • Oops! Wikipedia says that Lisberger’s first name is spelled Steven, not Stephen.

    • That’s OK, if I didn’t say it, someone would. ^_-

  • “Just like New York has Chinatown and Little Italy, Zootopia has distinct regional neighborhoods like Tundratown, Sahara Square, Little Rodenta (the bad part of town, populated by vermin), and Burrowborough, populated by millions of bunnies.”

    Am I being unnecessarily sensitive to think that perhaps people who live in “the bad part of town” won’t enjoy seeing themselves portrayed in this film as “vermin”?

    • “Am I being unnecessarily sensitive to think that perhaps people who live in “the bad part of town” won’t enjoy seeing themselves portrayed in this film as “vermin”?

      I’d probably feel that way if I was one of them too. I will give the film credit for perhaps address concerns of inequality or prejudices that may be present in this “Zootopia” as the creators are going for. It’s the sort of thing that sparks discussions and interests to look at the film in a way beyond simply watching it for ‘popcorn entertainment’.

  • Another “funny animal” book that put forward an animal civilization is Stan Sakai’s brilliant “Usagi Yojimbo”. I am definitely interested to see Zootopia. And I loved “Animalympics” as a kid!

    • While I love Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo”, it’s another example of just using animals to tell human history and Japanese human mythology. The animals are all the same size, eat the same diet, etc. Gen the rhinoceros is the same general size as Usagi the rabbit; the only difference is that of a beefy, muscular human versus a lean human.

  • The most publicized “Zootopia” presentation art owes a good chunk of its look and feel to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” though it will be a different film without Roald Dahl’s story.

  • I’m picturing what the furries’ll do to Zootopia… dear god.

    I did love hearing Ralph Bakshi tell us that in “Fritz,” he emphatically rejected the idea of giving them sides to their animal nature (though John Gentilella obviously studied horses really well for his scenes). The scene where Fritz and Duke drive the car off the bridge, in the Crumb book, Duke saves Fritz by flying. Bakshi was very, very serious about not doing that; and so they simply grab the rail.

    If you’re looking for another ‘predator’ animal comic? Kjartan Andersson , or “Karno,” in the eighties wrote a very entertaining comic about “Herman Orca.” In a world where animals evolved sentience after the extinction of humans, they evolved a society where predators (the more privileged race) used to hunt the lower classes for food; then worked out a system in which they eat the newly dead. But when the carnivores become unmanageably populous, they institute a ‘de-speciesing’ or something – the Rats are drawn out of a lottery to become un-persons, who can be killed for sport. Top street punk Herman Orca finds evidence of human society, and leads a terrorist rebellion to save the residents of the Ratto Ghetto he grew up in. It’s a rather good textbook example of the trope…

  • Does the stop-motion “I Go Pogo” count?

  • As a johnny-come-lately update, it looks as if France made a film last year that has an interesting premise involving a long friendship between a carnivore and herbivore that gets tested when the carnivore (a wolf) goes to a place of his kind in search of his mother. It’s called “Loulou, l’incroyable secret” or “Wolfy, The Incredible Secret”…

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