'Zootopia' lawsuit says basis for film was stolen from 'Total Recall' writer

Gary Goldman says he initially pitched ideas and character designs that wound up in the Disney hit 'Zootopia,' which grossed more than $341 million at the domestic box office.

Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, joins a police force in the animated film, 'Zootopia.' Screenwriter and producer Gary L. Goldman sued Disney on March 21 in a Los Angeles federal court alleging last year's animated blockbuster 'Zootopia' copied a franchise he pitched the studio in 2000 and 2009 as a way to explore life in America through a society of civilized animals.

Gary Goldman, a producer and screenwriter who worked on such films as "Total Recall" and "Big Trouble in Little China," is suing the Walt Disney Company for allegedly stealing his ideas and designs for the company's hit film, "Zootopia."

"Zootopia," the 2016 animated Disney feature, has received near-universal critical acclaim for its visuals, memorable characters, and sophisticated themes. But according to Mr. Goldman, at least some of the credit for the film's success should go to him.

The writer claims he initially pitched the idea of "Zootopia" to Mandeville Films chief executive David Hoberman in 2000, as an animated feature with a live-action component. Then, nine years later, the writer pitched the idea to Disney production executive Brigham Taylor. According to the suit, both pitches were turned down.

Disney's film is "substantially similar" to the "Zootopia" initially pitched by Goldman, the suit states.

"Both works explore whether the societies can live up to utopian ideals and judge and credit others fairly as individuals not as stereotypes, based on conceptions of merit not natural order, and the protagonists are challenged to strike a balance between the utopian and counter-utopian positions, optimism and pessimism, nature and individuality, and self-acceptance and self-improvement," according to the lawsuit.

Goldman also claims that many of his character design drawings, which he says he gave to Disney during pitching, were copied in the designs of the animated film. His lead character, the suit says, would have starred a hyena named Roscoe, not unlike the final film's leading fox, the con artist Nick.

"Both are dog-like predators who appear sly, cynical, and untrustworthy because of their postures, half-lidded eyes, and smirks," the lawsuit said.

The suit also draws a parallel between the rabbit character Judy Hopps and Goldman’s squirrel character, Mimi.

These types of lawsuits are not uncommon in Hollywood, with recent examples including suits against films like "Avatar" and "Django Unchained," reports the Los Angeles Times. Most often, judges side with the studio defendants. In 1990, however, a court ruled in favor of writer Art Buchwald, who had claimed that his idea for the Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America" had been stolen by the studio.

But it will be difficult for Goldman to convince a court that his idea was stolen, even if his allegations are true, since there are differences between the material he claimed was his idea and the final Disney product. As Warren Richey reported in 2006 for The Christian Science Monitor about a similar case brought against Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" by author Lewis Perdue:

US District Judge George Daniels ruled that the test is whether an "average lay observer" would find that the works to be substantially similar. Judge Daniels read the books and announced that he found no substantial similarities that would amount to a violation of copyright laws.

"It is a principle fundamental to copyright law that a copyright does not protect an idea, but only the expression of an idea," Judge Daniels wrote in his opinion. What is protected is the precise form in which an author presents the idea, not the idea itself, the judge said.

The judge acknowledged that Perdue's book and Brown's book shared common topics and themes. "All these similarities, however, are unprotectable ideas, historical facts, and general themes that do not represent any original elements of Perdue's work," Daniels wrote.

Goldman's lawsuit is claiming copyright infringement, breach of confidence, and other allegations against Disney.

Disney has strongly denied these claims.

"Mr. Goldman's lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations," reads a statement from Disney. "It is an unprincipled attempt to lay claim to a successful film he didn't create, and we will vigorously defend against it in court."

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