Judy Hopps is the newest hero to join Disney’s animal ranks, and she’s the warmest, fuzziest, bunniest police officer that you may never have met.
“The initial pitch for the movie was about a spy jackrabbit called Jack Savage, a James Bond type,” says Byron Howard, co-director of the latest Disney Animated endeavor, Zootopia (opening Mar. 4). “We chucked the spy thing and the movie evolved into this detective crime procedural, and at that point, [the character] took on this persona as a wannabe cop.”
Enter Judy, a wide-eyed bunny cop eager to prove her species’ mettle in a blue uniform in the bustling, anthropomorphic city of Zootopia. In a police force dominated by elephants, rhinos, and buffalo, Zootopia’s rabbit protagonist underwent a character transformation from slick to sweet — but she never lost her determination, especially not when Once Upon a Time actress Ginnifer Goodwin signed on to voice her.
“We talked about her possibly having cowboy swagger, like a female John Wayne,” Goodwin says. “But I think I must have been lousy at it because they very kindly and lovingly sat me down and said, ‘We want what you bring to the table to be what Judy is.’ And so I dropped everything and tried to make her bouncy and reactive. Judy just sounds like me.”
In fact, Goodwin shares more than a vocal chord with Judy. The actress’s go-go-go attitude aligns nicely with the speedy rabbit’s chronic impatience. Consider: The film’s lynchpin sloths-at-the-DMV scene — where a panicky, time-crunched Judy contends with sluggish sloth bureaucrats — was a one-take deal for that exact reason. “What genuinely happened in the room was the guys were making me so crazy because they were speaking so slowly,” says Goodwin with a laugh. “Without even thinking about it, I just found myself speeding up. The slower they spoke, the more quickly I needed to. I was pulling my hair out. And that ended up being what was used.”
Howard describes the link between actress and character thusly: “Ginnifer has this very pure core to her. She sounds very innocent, she’s very determined, but she’s still very fiery, and we sort of went away from that swaggery cop to a cop who is very true blue, like an Eagle Scout.”
Well, maybe not eagle scout. To the filmmakers, rabbits were the perfect underdog species for the role, particularly because of the natural food-chain chemistry with Judy’s fox partner, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). “Some folks were, ‘Well, should it be a rabbit and a fox? Should it be a tiger and a gazelle? Should it be a bigger animal and a smaller animal?’” recalls Howard. “[As fox and rabbit], Nick and Judy are predator and prey, but in the bigger scheme of the world, they’re both still underdogs. They’re small animals in a world full of much larger… dangerous animals. So there was something about having them be natural enemies but still be close in size, that made them feel like underdogs.”
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Judy and Nick are already so Disney-ready cute. Co-director Rich Moore says the bunny’s appeal is a combination of both an improvement in technology and the tried-and-true Disney process. “When you put her into the hands of a Disney animator, it’s almost like muscle memory,” says Moore. “They know what to do with the character to achieve maximum cute appeal. In fact, we had to pull them back. Sometimes she was a little too cute, where she started to lose some of her determination. And she almost thinks of being cute as a disability, that she’s not being taken seriously because of it.”
Goodwin agrees, and Judy’s pluck is largely her favorite thing about the character — a realization that, despite years of recording, the actress only recently grasped. “I didn’t understand until I saw the film that we have this badass action hero who is girly and good and generous and well-meaning and uncompromising and doesn’t have to have any of the, frankly, masculine qualities and sexuality that we associate to make her an action hero. She’s just unpromisingly sweet,” says Goodwin. “If I had little girls, I would kill for Judy Hopps to be their role model. And I would kill for Judy to be my boys’ role model, too.”
But Goodwin — who has one toddler and is expecting a baby boy with husband Josh Dallas — has removed herself from the Judy equation, at least when it comes to her growing tot, who has no idea mom is Hopps. “I don’t want him to recognize my voice, because he’s just developing an imagination, and I love that he believes characters are real, and I don’t want to shatter that illusion,” she admits. “My son carries a Judy doll around and shows her things out the window or reads her books and [I’m] like, you have no idea how weird this is.”