MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Zootopia originally starred a different character other than Judy Hopps.
Sometimes, it seems as though these movie legends that we feature give off the wrong impression about about how movies normally work. We’re always talking about how some movie was drastically changed at the last minute, but for the most part, that’s not how things go. Most of the time, movies follow the same basic script that they had from the beginning of the film process. This is especially true with animated films, as they take so much longer to make, so typically everything is settled with an animated film well before the film is actually set to be released. Of course, that means when there are exceptions to this typical process, they stand out more, especially with animated films, where dramatically altering a film late in the process is quite costly.
In the past, we’ve discussed how the original story for “Toy Story” was scrapped so late in the process that they almost had to cancel the film’s release period. We’ve seen how “Beauty and the Beast” scrapped its early work to revamp Belle and how “Frozen” had to throw out a bunch of animation when they decided that Elsa was no longer the villain of the film. Similarly, then, the recent Disney hit film, “Zooptopia”, had to get rid of a lot of finished work when they decided just a year before the film was set to be released, that the film was starring the wrong character.
“Zootopia” is about a young rabbit police officer named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fights stereotypes in the anthropomoraphic world of Zooptia, as rabbits are not seen as the sort of animal that you would typically see working as a police officer. Her pluck and moxie carry her through, as well as her optimistic way of looking at life.
Early on in the film, she stumbles into a conspiracy involving the kidnapping of a number of animals in Zootopia who you would typically describe as “predator” animals. Her dismissive boss allows her to work the case, but only if she promises to resign if she does not solve it in two days’ time. Judy agrees, and she then enlists the help of a fox con man named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who follows the stereotype of the “sly” fox to the tee (as we find out, though, he’s just living up to the expectations of the other animals). Together, Nick and Judy crack the case and become good friends.
However, originally, the film was told not from Judy’s perspective, but from Nick! Yes, originally Nick was the star of the film.
In a great interview at Rotoscopers, Clark Spencer, the producer of “Zootopia”, explained why they changed the lead of the film, despite it being only a year before the film was set to be released:
The original version, when we were developing it, we did have Nick as our main character. Nick is obviously a cynical character — it was still Jason Bateman and it was still that character you see on the screen–and to us, there was something fun about going into the world with a cynical character, especially with Jason Bateman narrating that character and being that voice. But what we started to realize–and now when we go back in retrospect, it makes so much sense — but what we started to realize was that even if the movie was super funny, people weren’t rooting for Nick because he’s cynical. It’s very hard to get the audience to root for a cynical character. And we would tell the audience, much later in the film, why he was cynical — but it was too late. It was very late in the film for you to suddenly say, “I’m rooting for this person.”
So we had a big screening where we talked deeply about “What if we took it and switched it?” And there were two things that came out of that: one was that it was going to be easier to root for Judy as a small rabbit wanting this dream, it was going to be easier for the audience to want to root for her. But the more interesting thing was that we were going to love the world of Zootopia more. If we learn Zootopia through the eyes of a cynical character, we start to think the world is already broken, from the beginning of the film, from the first few lines. A really profound statement that was said was, “I love this world. You talk about this city, and there’s Tundratown and Sahara Square, and it feels like the most magical place in the world, and yet your main character is telling you it’s broken. So from the beginning, I’m waiting for the world to get fixed.”
If you start from [Judy’s] POV and we see what she is seeing and we believe anyone can be anything–because that’s all we’ve been told–we’re going to realize over the course of time that it’s actually not that perfect, that there are chinks in the armor, and we’re going to discover it through her eyes.
Spencer noted the sad part of making decisions like that, which is that you then need to cut large scenes that were already animated and finished. In this instance, they had finished a scene where Nick and Judy met for the first time. Spencer further explained:
In that sequence, which was one of the sequences we loved and had been animated. We got to see Jason Bateman play a scam on Judy in the ice cream parlor, where he kept layering on, “This is my kid. And my kid can’t talk. And he can’t hear.” You as the audience are laughing because he is pulling the scam on her. And you are loving it. And Jason Bateman was delivering his lines like no one could; it was amazing. And we would play the scene for people and they would crack up, but the problem was: we knew he was scamming her, and she didn’t. So we were, again, ahead of our main character. One of the hardest things to do was to lose that sequence, which was working brilliantly, and change the movie in this big way.
Obviously, “Zootopia” was a major success, so it is hard to argue with the results of the change. It does make you wonder what the other version of the film could have looked like.
The legend is…
Thanks to Rotoscopers and Clark Spencer for the great information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
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