Development- Dinosaurs and Bunnies

 4th marked the release of the latest Disney movie. Zootopia. A story about a Bunny who wants to be a police officer. Now I’ll be honest, I was worried. The anthropomorphic animals teaming up to fight crime seemed more like a Dreamworks movie and less like a Disney movie. After movies such as Planes and Planes Fire and Rescue (both of which were NOT Pixar), I had very little faith in this movie. Disney Pixar’s release of Good Dinosaur had me even more worried. It was such a cool concept, and then they redid Lion King as a Western with dinosaurs. They had been doing so well, and then now there were all these movies going downhill. I was nervous to say the least. Then I saw Zootopia, and I loved it.  Weirdly enough, I think it is in the light of my disappointment in Good Dinosaur that helped me love Zootopia. So let me explain. 

There was one major difference between the two movies. Development.

Both movies were announced at D23. Good Dinosaur in 2011, and Zootopia in 2013. You’d think that meant the studios would have spent similar time working on the stories. But Good Dinosaur had a big rewrite not long before the movie was due out. Now this can work in some cases. Toy Story 2 did something similar. But Good dinosaur was lacking. If you haven’t seen it, the premise of Good Dinosaur is “what would life be like if we weren’t hit by the asteroid.” In many ways, it was creative. The Raptors, known scientifically for being crazy smart, were played as fools. Humans were equivalent to wolves. Spot at Arlo communicated missing their family through sticks. But then there was the rest of the movie.

This movie felt very thrown together. It wasn’t one connected story, but small vignettes to get the characters from point A to point B. The first problem I had was the first death. We get it, Disney. Parents die. But must that always be a plot divice? Arlo’s father be swept away by the flood felt like a less painful version of Mufasa being swept under the wildebeest. Arlo was already working to make his father proud. We could have skipped straight to Arlo being swept away. Here he is, scared and alone. When we see his father later in the movie, the vision being a spirit would have been a bigger shock. Plus, the emotional pay off of Arlo putting his print on the silo with his father would have been great. But after Arlo eventually gets swept away, we go straight into a bunch of disjointed meetings with scary and crazed dinosaurs. You didn’t quite know why they were there. I still don’t fully get what Forrest Woodbush’s personality was supposed to be. Obviously, the writers needed a device for Arlo to accept Spot in his life, but the whole scene felt forced. He wasn’t eccentric. He was unstable. Then his bet bird was going to try to steal spot? You’re tiny, Mr. Red bird. What are you doing? Couldn’t we have it go down in a way that comforted Arlo? That way, it makes more sense for him to be trusting of the next group.  They just happened to be pterodactyls who were also unstable. These guys turned out to be the ultimate bad guys, which after the first interaction seemed obvious. They didn’t vary enough in the personality types of the side characters. Arlo was already afraid. By creating variation, it would have shown him that not everything is scary, which would have made his character growth more natural. There were some really nice moments that could have been brought out more. I’m pretty sure everyone loved the stick moment, where Arlo and Spot communicate about family. At the end, when Spot is deciding to join his family, it would have been sweet to have drawn a circle in the dirt around himself and Arlo to show that they were still family even if he left with his human family. This moment was a sign of their friendship, and a reprise would have been perfect. But that’s the type of thing that happens when you have more time to explore before releasing a movie.  I guess I would say it was about overcoming your fears, but that feels like a stretch.

So I’m sitting in the theater waiting for Zootopia, worried. If they had a great idea for Good Dinosaur and couldn’t get it right, what could I expect from Zootopia? It turns out, I can expect a great movie.

Zootopia hit the nail right on the head. This was everything you’d want. The thought put into the story was clear.  Things didn’t just happen, they had a cause and effect. It felt more like a journey. You were traveling with them, picking up the clues. While there were jokes about the different characters, nothing felt like just a vignette. Each step led to a new moment. The flow of everything felt real. We could all relate to having our words twisted, like Judy in the press conference. We can all relate to the fear bullies and believing what they say about us, like Nick. We rooted for Judy to pass her exam. It made sense that the top member of her class would have problems adjusting to the real world. Obviously if she’s worked this hard, she’ll fight to keep the job she worked for. I could go on showing how everything connects. Not only did it flow well, characters had motivation. Every character was their own. Judy was a smart and strong willed bunny. We saw her work hard and face her failures head on. She wasn’t afraid to work to make her dream real. On the other side, Nick represented the pesamstic side of that coin. He gave in to the norms that he wanted to fight against. We’ve all experienced both of those feelings. Because of that, we rooted for them as they teamed up. We knew what both of them felt. Even the side characters were complex. Gideon Grey was a bully as a kid, but just like most people, he grew up to become a better person. Even Mr. Otterton was a simple man, but has his quirk of going to the naturalist club. This world felt real. No one was flat. Plus, it wasn’t just a plot. It was about something. The movie spoke about learning to look past stereotypes and preconceived notions. It told the audience to look past what others expect of you, and reach for your dreams. I walked away feeling connected to the characters and better about my own life. It wasn’t just a plot. It was about something.

I’m not just critiquing these two movies. For me, these two really show the importance of development. A story can be just a story. But if you work on it, a story can become real. These two movies, especially when running parallel, really drove that home for me.