It's a land where lemmings run banks (the Lemming Brothers Bank), sloths rule the D.M.V. (Department of Mammal Vehicles) and ice cream parlours employ elephants to serve up banana splits with their trunks.
This is Zootopia, Disney's latest animated feature and also the name of a cosmopolitan city — part-tundra, part-desert, part-tropic — inhabited by hundreds of thousands of animals, all living and working together. The film centres on bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town cop who uncovers a conspiracy and is forced to team with sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
"Everyone has those preconceived ideas about animals," Zootopia's co-director Rich Moore said during an interview at the company's animation studios in Burbank, Calif.
"We wanted to use that as a way to talk about the human world and how we treat one another.
"People will sometimes put each other in boxes and have biases toward one another because of what they look like or where they come from or who they are. But ultimately it's up to us to decide who we are."
Wild animal studies
Before the filmmakers could get that message across, they needed to do their research. Moore, co-director Byron Howard, and their creative team spent 18 months studying the animal kingdom, which included a trip to Kenya to observe relationships in the wild.
They also learned about movement and characteristics that would help the animation team make each character look realistic.
"We didn't want it to look like a guy in an animal suit," said Dave Komorowski, Zootopia's head of characters and technical animation. "We wanted to stay with real world scale on these animals and so we would have a giraffe be the real height of a giraffe. We would have a mouse be the real height of a mouse."
Not only that, but the details of each creature — right down to the hairs of their fur — had to look real, too.
For example, Komorowski said furry mice have about 400,000 hairs on their bodies. If his team wanted to be true to life, they'd have to draw the same amount for each mouse depicted in Zootopia. The same went for foxes, sloths, polar bears and so forth. The amount of detail drawn for giraffes in the film set a new Disney animation record: each had 9.2 million hairs.
"We were trying to look and see how the hairs actually worked in the real world instead of coming up with a way to fake it," Komorowski said.
After all, audiences are savvy and can tell when even an animated character lacks authenticity. So, the filmmakers made sure to hire a pro when it came to one particular Zootopia cameo.
"We had a character in the movie that was a news anchor," said Howard. "We needed someone with the authority and the gravitas to really bring that across."
That character — Peter Moosebridge — was inspired by CBC's own chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge.
"I thought I nailed it and they all said, as they say, 'That was really good. That was really good. In fact, I don't know if we need to do another one. Oh maybe we need to do another one.' And of course, 10 or 15 later, we were good," Mansbridge said of the experience.
"Whenever you do something new, you get a kind of burst of nervous energy and that's all good. Just makes you more fascinated in what you're involved in," he said.
Though "sometimes we have to coach the voice actors to take it in a slightly different direction," Howard said, he added that Mansbridge was a natural.
"I think one of the first takes he did is actually the one in the film."
Zootopia opens in Canada and the U.S. on March 4.