Disney accused in new lawsuit of ripping off idea for 'Zootopia,' the billion-dollar Academy Award-winning animated movie

A still from Disney's latest release Zootopia.
Source: Disney
A still from Disney's latest release Zootopia.

What kind of animal would steal a movie idea about .... animals?

Walt Disney was slapped Tuesday with a lawsuit claiming it ripped off the idea for its Oscar-winning, billion-dollar-grossing animated animal flick "Zootopia" from a Hollywood veteran.

The federal suit says screenwriter and producer Gary Goldman pitched the idea for "Zootopia" — which he literally had called "Zootopia" — twice over the years to Disney and a film company that had a production contract with Disney.

The most recent pitch was in 2009, the suit by Goldman's Esplanade Productions claims. It alleges copyright infringement, breach of implied-in-fact contract, breach of confidence and unfair competition.

Disney eventually produced "Zootopia" for release last year.

Since then, it has earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing pictures ever, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Goldman, whose screenplay credits include "Total Recall" and producing "Minority Report," claims Disney and the other defendants in the suit copied the themes of his version of "Zootopia," as well as its settings, plot, characters, and dialogue — some virtually verbatim.

Esplanade's suit, which features side-by-side illustrations of Goldman's characters and similar ones from the Disney movie, argues that Disney was following a tried-and-true formula in swiping "Zootopia" from Goldman without credit for its own enrichment.

"Although the Walt Disney Company rigorously enforces its copyrights, it has developed a culture that not only accepts the unauthorized copying of others' original material, but encourages it," the suit says.

"Defendants' unauthorized appropriation of others' intellectual property is a corporate practice that has generated tremendous profits," the suit claims.

In fact, the suit says, the director and credited writer of Disney's "Zootopia," Byron Howard, "has told artists: 'Don't worry if you feel like you're copying something because if it comes through you, it's going to filter through you and you're going to bring your own unique perspective to it."

The suit goes on to mention several Disney hits that it says copied from others' work, including "The Lion King," "Toy Story," "Monsters Inc.," and "Inside Out."

Esplanade's suit says that after Goldman pitched the idea in 2000, and then once more in 2009.

The first pitch was to former Disney Studios president for Motion Pictures David Hoberman, who was then-CEO of Mandeville Films, which Goldman understood had a first-look production contract with Disney, according to the lawsuit.

The second pitch was to Brigham Taylor, Disney's then-executive vice president for production and development, the suit says.

After those pitches, Disney and the other defendants "said they were not interested in producing it, and sent him on his way," the suit says.

After those pitches, "consistent with their culture of unauthorized copying, Defendants copied Goldman's work," the suit says.

A Disney spokesman said, "Mr. Goldman's lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations."

"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," the Disney spokesman said.