right image via Byron Howard
Like a lot of beloved movies, Zootopia was once a very different beast. For one, the story wasn't always centered around the journey of Judy Hopps, ZPD's first bunny cop. Initially, Nick Wilde the fox stood center stage. It was late in the game when producers decided to turn the focus to Judy, believing her optimistic outlook was the right way to introduce the bright and prosperous Zootopia. But Nick's wry pessimism would have been a perfect fit for the dark original vision of the city.
Take a look at that concept art above, on the right. Anything stick out? Yes, Nick looks predictably dashing in a suit, but he's also got a special gadget around his neck. That's a shock collar. The idea being if he ever got too out of line, a shock would emnate from said collar, bringing him to heel.
Nick doesn't have to wear one of these just because he's a shady guy. In the preliminary drafts of the movie, every single predator in Zootopia was required to have a "tame collar" strapped to their necks at all times. Meaning that even softies like Clawhauser were publicly marked as potential threats.
As the producers explain, this was supposed to be how predators and prey started their uneasy truce. That's in stark contrast to the final version of the movie, where even kids know that animals evolved beyond the "primitive, savage ways" and learned to get along with each other simply because their compassion grew along with their intelligence. As the creators tell it, the shock collars weren't really necessary for the safety of the prey, but the fascistic tactics "made them feel better" -- and isn't that the most important thing?
If this sounds way too heavy and depressing for a Disney movie, that's because it is. The idea of a mandatory visual marker denoting what class of being you belong to is just a smidge Hitlery. But before they wised up, the production team had gotten pretty far with the shock collar premise. Everything was storyboarded out, including a heartbreaking scene involving a child learning the hard truth about being a predator.
In this draft of the script, Judy and Nick had just escaped imprisonment in Tundratown when they hide under a table at a child's party. But the festivities aren't for a birthday -- it's a "taming party," a twisted ritual which celebrates the first time a predator puts on a shock collar at the age of five. It's sort of like a barmitzvah filled with sadness and racism.
This scene was so pivotal to the early version of the movie that it was actually partially animated before the direction changed. At first, young Morris the polar bear is absolutely thrilled to get his collar. It's a symbol of maturity, a rite of passage. He's a big bear now!
But then Morris gets a little too excited. Since the collars are tuned to give a shock when predators get "emotional," that electric charge can trigger from fits of anger or outcries of joy. After the shock collar zaps the cub for the first time, Morris will never be the same.
Though the static partygoers in the background are clearly unfinished, you can tell a lot of work was already put into that simultaneously confused and crushed expression on Morris' face. Though his father tried to stop him, this moment was inevitable. Eventually the cub would have to learn what being a "big bear" in this world really means: no longer being free.
You can't blame Disney for dramatically altering the film. While it's fascinating to see where Zootopia was originally headed, in the end the creative team decided that a world with shock collars wasn't a fair or at all pleasant place to visit for two hours.
Now, a world with an animal nudist colony, on the other hand...
Tristan Cooper gets upset about deleted scenes in imaginary universes all the time over on Twitter.