There’s too often a tendency to write off any animated feature as a “kids’ movie.” There are certainly plenty of movies that do fit into that category but the medium used shouldn’t dictate the intended audience for movies any more than something being posted on a blog should objectively change its’ reception compared to it being published in a newspaper or magazine. Animated movies, as has been proven by films like Anomolisa and others, can be for any audience and deserve to be judged on their merits, without preconceptions in the audience that weigh the product down.
I bring this up because Zooptopia, the new animated feature from Disney, looks to not be quite what you would expect. Jason Bateman voices Nick Wilde, a fox that lives in this city of anthropomorphic animals and who is a bit of a con man. One day his path crosses with that of Jody Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who’s also a rookie on the city’s police force. She needs his help on a case she’s investigating but that case turns out to be far from the simple one she first thought and instead leads the two down into the city’s criminal underbelly.
The first teaser poster for the movie is essentially an introduction to the movie’s world more than anything. We see the back of two animals’ heads as they look up at a street sign in basically an animal version of New York City. How do we know it’s an animal-run world? Because the ads and billboards that are within view are filled with animal puns on real-world ads. “Just zoo it” and “Preyda” are both visible among others. There’s not much more to it, but it does make it clear to the audience that they will be entering a world populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals.
A poster that really took you into the population of Zootopia followed. This one is meant to show all kinds of different character designs, though there’s almost no story elements or anything that are obviously on display. There may be a few hidden here and there, but nothing overt.
After that a series of parody posters were released that offered Zootopia-specific takes on recent movies. So there was one for The Force Awakens as well as Ex Machina, Jurassic World, Straight Outta Compton, Fifty Shades of Grey and Cinderella. These are fun and they certainly got some attention, but I fail to see how they worked to move the needle on actual desire to the see the movie, Awareness, maybe, but not intent.
The teaser trailer introduces the audience to the premise and some of the characters but not to much of the story. Nick (the fox voiced by Bateman) narrates as all sorts of animals walk past the camera as he introduces the basic premise, that a world of anthropomorphic animals is a mix of the real human and animal worlds, with modern conveniences as well as old natural rivalries.
There’s not a whole lot to it, but it gets the basic point across. Nick is presented as a wise guy type character, but one who may be too smart for his own good. And the other animals are shown here only in broad strokes. So not super-substantive but still a decent first look.
The first full trailer is actually more of an extended scene than a traditional trailer. It shows Wilde and Hopps in the middle of a case. They need the help of the DMV, which in this world is staffed exclusively by sloths. The investigation gets derailed when Wilde tells the sloth a joke.
Again, this isn’t really a trailer but it does show the kind of sense of humor the movie will have as well as showing off the animation. It’s not bad.
Next was a much more traditional trailer that shows the story’s major plot points. So we see Officer Hopps join the force and get a lousy assignment that spirals into something else entirely as she gets mixed up in some of Zootopia’s seedier elements. We see Hopps meet Nick Wilde and how the two of them get involved into the investigation together.
It’s a good trailer that, as many people noted, lays out the story almost entirely as a way to make it safe for people who are intimidated by original stories. What is most notable, though, is the way the kind of prejudice and behavior toward rabbits serves as a metaphor for how women are often treated in sexist systems. That’s a pretty heavy message for what seems to be a kid’s movie and you can make of that what you will.
Yet another trailer – billed as the final theatrical spot – takes the same approach in laying out the story. This one features a bit more of the fox voiced by Bateman and just how much of a con artist he is but then moves into the story of his helping with the police investigation.
If you read between the lines of this one you can see the darker shadings the movie seems to have. Watch it a couple times and this doesn’t look like a wholesome, mostly inoffensive kids’ movie but something that is a bit more morally suspect.
Online and Social
The official website opens with video of Wilde and Hopps taking selfies, much to Wilde’s chagrin. Contining to scroll down the page you’ll find the second trailer if you’d like to watch that again. There are other clips and videos below that including clips, Target commercials advertising movie-branded consumer products and more.
Below that is a decent synopsis of the movie’s story and that’s followed by “Zootopia Dash,” a web-based scavenger hunt game that has you play as one of the movie’s characters and run through a Target to find their items.
There are a bunch of character bios after that which introduce you to some of the citizens of Zootopia you’re going to see and which tell you who provides their voices. There’s a whole “Shop” section here for you to pick up the Zootopia swag you didn’t know you needed. Finally, the “partners” section has links for the companies that have helped to promote the movie.
There are lots of colorful graphics and videos that were shared on the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles. Not much in the way of news but plenty of countdowns, some fun movie-themed images that played off current events like the Oscars and more. There were also Stickers you could download and use on Facebook if you were so inclined. The studio RTd the stars as well as other partners on Twitter.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Picking up an element from the poster campaign, one of the TV spots opens with the animal pun takes on current movie posters before declaring this will be the “Year of Zootopia.”
In fact TV was such a big part of the campaign spending on that facet of the marketing was enough to send it to the list of the top-spending movies two weeks in a row.
There were plenty of online ads run online and within social networks like Twitter. And I’m sure there was a robust outdoor campaign in select markets as well.
In terms of promotional partners:
- Target: Ran a co-branded campaign that included the commercials and web game mentioned earlier.
- Google Photos: Had a bit of by creating videos and promotions for “Zoogle Photos” as a way to point out that even these animated characters need a way to store their photos.
- Über: Not much that I was able to find on the active marketing front but it does look like the world of the movie features “Zuber” for their on-demand car needs.
- GoGurt: Co-branded packaging supported by a TV ad campaign.
- Subway: Co-branded ads as well as movie toys in their kids meals.
Media and Publicity
Outside of the release of marketing materials, one of the first bits of publicity had co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore talking about how the movie was actually kind of a crime noir story that wasn’t all sunny and funny animal characters, but with some seedy and disturbing elements as well.
Shakira, who voiced a gazelle in the film, reportedly asked the animators to give her character wider hips to keep with her personal brand. Later on at the movie’s premiere the cast talked about the story and how timely it was in its message of embracing diversity as well as what kind of pets they had or wanted.
Goodwin seems to have been the primary member of the cast to head out and about, appearing on talk shows and elsewhere to promote the movie.
The campaign hits all the notes it needs to: It’s bright and funny and presents an attractive option for families looking for a movie to see this weekend. You can’t really go wrong with talking animals and the trailers in particular work really well in conveying a solid sense of humor and atmosphere about the movie.
But I want to come back to something I said in the opening, that maybe there’s more going on here than is apparent on the surface. That’s buoyed by part of the press push and there are elements of the campaign that hint at this being funny, sure, but also pretty much following the standard beats of a crime drama. There’s an undercurrent that’s just barely visible of a movie that’s just as tense and gripping as it is lighthearted and funny. How well that works in execution, if that is indeed the case, may impact the word-of-mouth that comes out of the movie’s first weekend showings.