The massive box office success of “Zootopia” is a rare win for originality

Making an original film from scratch is often an extremely slow process.
Making an original film from scratch is often an extremely slow process.
Image: Disney
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Originality in Hollywood is (mostly) dead. Despite recent troubles in sequel-land, the vast majority of financially successful films are either sequels, remakes, reboots, parts of an already popular franchise, or adaptations of books or other existing works. So on the rare occasion a truly original film breaks through the pack, it’s cause to celebrate.

Disney’s Zootopia crossed the $1 billion worldwide box office mark this week, surpassing another Disney classic, The Lion King, as the second biggest original movie ever behind only AvatarZootopia, a buddy cop adventure that explores a world populated by anthropomorphized animals, was an entirely original idea. It’s not based on anything other than the imaginations of Disney’s brain trust.

The list of top grossing films of all time is inundated with films that are based on other things. Of the top 100, just 15 are truly original properties:

This list does not include James Cameron’s Titanic—the second highest grossing film of all time—because it’s based on a historical event. There’s also some debate over whether or not Disney’s Frozen is a truly original film (it would be second on this chart with $1.277 billion). While inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” the film was significantly changed during development.

Another borderline case is Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012, which does not appear on this list because the director himself said the film was inspired by a book. Emmerich’s film Independence Day, however, is included.

It’s really tough to crack the top 100 grossing films of all time with an original idea, and it’s even tougher to pass the $1 billion mark with one. Zootopia is the first original Disney film ever to do so. Still, it lags far behind other Disney films that aren’t original, including Toy Story 3, two Star Wars sequels, four Marvel movies, and two entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Disney deserves a lot of credit. Despite an obsessive strategy of adapting all of its cartoons into live-action films, the studio has led a charge of originality with many of its animated features. Six of the top 15 highest grossing original films are Disney/Pixar films. And, of course, several Disney films that are now part of huge franchises, like Toy Story, were once original.

The list of original box office successes is a tribute to filmmaker Christopher Nolan in particular. With Inception and Interstellar, Nolan is the rare artist who has twice made wholly original films that also smashed the box office. That said, much of what raised his profile as a director in the first place was his Batman trilogy.

As for Zootopia, Disney is reportedly thinking about a sequel.