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Did Disney’s marketing of “Zootopia” do justice to the film?

in Disney, Movies

Image Copyright 2016 Disney

When a film makes over $70 million in an opening weekend, it is hard to argue that the marketing team behind a movie did a subpar job. In all fairness to Walt Disney Animation, the trailers and tactics used for this movie worked on a level, by creating a fun and seemingly harmless atmosphere around the film. This likely increased the level of interest in kids, or families with children, but the fact of the matter was, there had not been a movie targeted to children since “Kung Fu Panda 3” in January.

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

However, the critical success of the film snuck up on many Disney fans, myself included. Among friends and other people I had talked to, most thought the movie was going to be “Dreamworks quality” or a return to the early 2000s for Disney. Some thought the ceiling for the movie, based solely on its marketing, was going to be more in line with “Bolt,” a film that is fun, but ultimately does not come up in conversations about great Disney movies.

After this week though, it is hard to argue that case anymore. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99%, a Metacritic score of 78%, and a $73.7 million opening weekend box office, the film is an unbelieveable success for Disney Animation. With “Moana” still on the horizon, it is hard to argue against the idea that Disney Animation is in Renaissance 2.0 mode, with “Wreck-It-Ralph,” “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6” representing a run in Disney history that stacks up against any decade in Disney history (and we’re only 6 years in).

Panther zootopia

Still, the subject matter of “Zootopia” and the genre choices were the most shocking about the film. With many thinking that the movie would be a simple “talking animals movie,” it instead mixed elements of mystery, crime comedy, and solid commentary on the current state of police activity. The film found a way to walk the tightrope between portraying police officers in a negative light, while maintaining that some bad apples do not create a broken system. Its mystery elements harkened back to “The Great Mouse Detective” and “The Rescuers,” but held onto comedy aspects one would expect to find in a film like “Ocean’s 11” or “The Big Lebowski.”

Godfather Zootopia

This is no doubt a very different film than we expected, and we have to place some of the blame on Disney. It’s possible they didn’t realize that their film would resonate so strongly with young adults or with the politically charged climate in America right now. Yet, the film that was sold to us lowered expectations to the point that many thought the film would be Disney Animation’s first misstep in its run. What we got were cute scenes of sloths, that ultimately had little to do with the film as a whole.

The problem that the marketing presents though, is that it tells audiences that unless Disney embraces the schtick of “The Minions” or low stakes animation stories, that audiences won’t show up. I think audiences are more grown up than that. If we knew it was a mystery/noir film with comedy, audiences still would have shown up. We would have loved to see a Disney that would lampoon itself, make pop culture jokes, and engage with the zeitgeist. These are the elements that will let this film endure, and some members of the audience were already saying this is their favorite Disney movie in years.

Zootopia Ice Them

These aspects of the film will be what we remember, and the marketing campaign will fade away with time. Still, it would be nice for Disney to treat its audience with some respect, as opposed to going for the lowest common denominator to bring in audiences. Even though Disney has always been for kids, they don’t have to treat their entire audience like one.

“Zootopia” is currently in theaters. It stars Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Tommy Chong, Shakira, and Alan Tudyk.


  1. EricJ

    The marketing was all over the map, but even the first “unveiling” teaser–just Nick & Judy doing a silent-Pixar-short comic bit on a blank background–not only showed us the main characters, but told us the one thing we wanted to know:
    It had Lasseter-era humor, and therefore likely some character sympathy as well, so no, it wasn’t Madagascar or Ice Age. Whew.

    As for the “themes”, or the “dark tone” or whatever, that’s for the audience to find out, but the FIRST biggest hurdle (which is probably why it ended up in March instead of a prime summer spot) had to be conquered first.

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  2. Jones

    I guess the low expectations are party responsible for the good reviews – and, more importantly, for the fact that people enjoyed the movie. No hyped movie in history has ever lived up to the expectations (because that´s simply inpossible). And the campaign was far less misleading than the one for Rapunzel (i refuse to use the insipid title “Tangled”, which was part of the effort to “mislead” the public. Interestingly enough, “Rapunzel” was deemed ok for most foreign territories…)

  3. Kenneth Cox

    I think it was also something that Deadpool, Force Awakens, and 10 Cloverfield Lane has done with marketing.

    They didn’t tell people so much about the plot that you knew what would happen going in. How many movies do you know that, just watching the trailers, that you pretty much knew the entire plot? Even the current Superman v Batman has shown so much that most of the plot is known. I was able to go into Zootopia knowing the basics (civilized animals going missing and maybe savage) and didn’t get so much thrown at me in trailers that it was ruined. The sloth gag you see in trailers is only a part of the whole gag so, during that scene, I didn’t feel like I saw it already.

    1. EricJ

      Again, it’s the influence of the Pixar shorts, to tell a funny movie in a self-contained two-minute bit, and leave us with a sort-of grasp of the plot, characters and tone, but still keep all the huggy/serious Lasseter-era surprises.
      Just like Zootopia was The Sloth Movie for three months, Wreck-It Ralph was sold with just the support-group scene, Big Hero 6 with just Baymax kicking the soccer ball, Frozen with Olaf and Sven, and Tangled with “Boy meets girl with frying pan” .

      It’s from there that Disney has to show us more of the PLOT in increasingly clarified trailers, to make sure we know that Frozen isn’t just a movie about a snowman and a reindeer (while keeping the favorite audience-identified bits still in the trailers and poster), but at least they have something to build on.

  4. Lennon

    I agree Alan! Disney messed up BIG TIME with this one! It all started back at D23 where Disney spent a huge amount of time talking up The Jungle Book and Mona (both at this point I honesty hope will not be the hits that they expected, simply because they gave so little thought to this beautiful film.) And afterwards so little investment was made for marketing and what marketing did take place made many feel this was simply a children’s movie. And even at this point I still hear others say that haven’t seen it that it’s a movie for little kids! We can thank the marketing for that one! I really hope Disney learned something from this and for a Zootopia sequel (I hope) they will present the actual story to audiences rather than its just a bunch of funny talking animals.

  5. Zidders Roofurry

    Uh…the trailers weren’t misleading at all. None of the advertisements were. Nor did I feel talked down to. The advertising was fun and the social media campaign effective. The animators reached out to the community and did their best to show just how sincere the movies message is. That and I think you’re being too harsh on the minions. They’re meant to be whimsical.

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