CinemaTech: How technology makes Zootopia one of Disney’s most realistic films

CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.

Disney movies have always had an odd relationship with technology.

It’s not that Walt himself was averse to it – innovations like the first sound cartoon, the multiplane camera, and the “Fantasound” stereo system developed for 1940’s Fantasia made him the old Hollywood equivalent of a Silicon Valley startup.

And just like today, the entertainment he created was often at the mercy of his audience. Fantasia was meant to be revised every decade; instead it flopped, as did the equally lavish (and expensive) Pinocchio and Bambi. Instead, a couple of fairy tales and a shoestring adaptation of a forgotten children’s book became his biggest hits.

But like the nostalgic streak that runs through his namesake park’s Main Street, U.S.A., Walt also loved sharing “the good old days” and the formative stories that accompanied them with an unabashed fondness that his company’s movies have kept alive to this day.

Consequently, even as they’ve broken ground behind the scenes, one of the constant appeals of Disney movies has been their old-fashioned, timeless – read: fantasy-driven and technology-free – settings, a quality that can help make their stories transcendent at best (the Pacific northwest of this year’s Pete’s Dragon reimagining, the turn-of-the-century midwest of Lady and the Tramp); but also cloyingly off-putting at worst (the original Pete’s Dragon’s turn-of-the-century New England, The Fox and the Hound’s Pacific northwest).

This extends to the animated canon, where even the films that actually take place in the years they were made generally keep the number of time signifiers to a minimum: A steam engine in Dumbo; two vehicles and a television in 101 Dalmations; two slightly more advanced vehicles and a television (along with, admittedly, a boombox) in Oliver and Company.

By contrast, the company’s latest, Zootopia, is set in a modern megalopolis that does not feel timeless, at all – and is all the better for it.

Admittedly, Disney has been on a modern streak lately – since 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, six of its 14 releases have taken place in some approximation of modern times.

But again, most have had a timeless or science-fiction bent: Without its spaceships, Lilo could have taken place anytime between the instant camera’s invention and the introduction of the iPhone. Wreck-It Ralph, to cite another example, might take place in our world but more than half the story is set in a fantasy land made of candy. Neither feels as realistic as Zootopia.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling Disney’s latest “real” in the sense that I think its human-free timeline exists in an alternate universe. It’s an animated fable that uses a rabbit police officer’s first big case, which sees her collaborating with a con artist fox, to illustrate how difficult – but necessary – it is for different groups to live in harmony, with multiple species of anthropomorphic mammals standing in for whatever race/sexual orientation/gender/class/etc. you wish to ascribe to them.

(And yes, I know there’s a legitimate reason for one group of animals to fear another – more on that later.)

But it is realistic in the sense that viewers can feel as instinctively familiar with its technology-driven world as its lead characters, to an extent that I think is a Disney first.

For example, what does protagonist Judy Hopps do when she first sees the movie’s title city? The same thing many of us would – boot up a favourite song on her iCarrot Mini.

Travel's always better with music.
Travel’s always better with music. Too bad the song doesn’t measure up.

And though Lilo & Stitch and Wreck-It Ralph understood the frustration of hunting for and holding down a job, their characters didn’t fight a mounting sense of desperation while returning home to an undersized apartment, underwhelming T.V. dinner, and MuzzleTime call from mom and dad like Hopps does.

Judy may not be as happy to hear from her parents as she looks in this picture.
Judy may not be as happy to hear from her parents as she looks in this shot.

A sight gag like Judy using an elephant’s computer wouldn’t make sense for audiences in just any era, since half the joke lies in knowing how the device’s real-world counterpart works in the first place. (Sadly, this particular sight gag didn’t make it into the movie.)


The same goes for her unwitting partner Nick Wilde’s surprise at discovering a stack of CDs…


And Judy’s frustration with the outdated technology at the sloth-staffed DMV.


Just like modern viewers, the animals in Zootopia rely on their cellphones throughout the day, whether it’s wasting time with an app…


…Or using its flashlight and recording functions to solve a case.


And fine, so we don’t travel to work in pneumatic tubes – yet – but the technology exists, so it doesn’t appear outside the realm of possibility.


The filmmakers’ careful use of technology even extends to what they didn’t include – as noted by more than one critic, the film’s central metaphor doesn’t quite work as a direct allegory for human prejudice, since real-life prey has a legitimate reason to fear predators.

But Byron Howard, the co-director who pitched the idea of a modern city with anthropomorphic animals in the first place, was aware of this problem: That’s why for the majority of Zootopia’s development, every predator wore a collar that electrocuted them whenever they became excited.

There’s no corrolary for the shock collar in real life – no wonder colleagues who watched early versions of Zootopia told Howard they wouldn’t want to live there.

Its replacement, stereotyping, admittedly isn’t tech-related but turned out to be equally familiar to viewers.

There is, of course, a chance that my view of Zootopia is coloured by my age. Dumbo and 101 Dalmations took place in eras that in their respective times were equally recent but have always been period pieces to me, while the artists working on Lady and the Tramp would have remembered its setting as well as I remember Oliver and Company’s. Perhaps Zootopia’s present timeliness will eventually make it an equally dated – and equally timeless – period piece for the generations behind me.

In which case, I can’t imagine a better animated time capsule.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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