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The Secret Meaning Behind Mayor Lionheart's Name In Zootopia

Zootopia is one of our favorite Disney movies for about a hundred reasons. Oh, sure — we could go on about its amazing messages about the merits of inclusion, the importance of dedication and hard work, and the power of friendship, even between those whom some segments of society insist should be adversaries. But for our money, Zootopia is simply the most clever, flat-out funniest flick the House of Mouse has produced in years. 

The story of a bright-eyed, ambitious bunny named Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) who resolves to become the first of her kind to become a police officer in the sprawling metropolis of Zootopia is certainly not without its dramatic elements — after all, its story revolves around a sinister plot to drive a wedge between the city's predators and prey, who have overcome their traditional rivalry to live harmoniously, by using a mysterious drug to drive predators "savage" and sow mistrust among the city's prey. But in sketching out their vision of a society created by and for animals, the creative minds behind the film took time to load seemingly every detail with gags, puns, and references — up to and including the names of their principal characters.

You don't have to reach too far to figure out where the filmmakers were going with many of these names. Judy's surname, for example, is "Hopps," which must be a pretty common bunny name. Nick (Jason Bateman), the sly fox whom Judy enlists to help her uncover the plot, has the on-the-nose last name of "Wilde." But when it comes to some characters, it's safe to say that a little more thought went into their names than it might appear on the surface — like, for instance, that of Zootopia's Mayor Lionheart, portrayed by J.K. Simmons.

Mayor Lionheart's name is a historical reference

It might seem to the casual observer as if it took about five seconds to come up with the name "Mayor Lionheart," and hey, it may have. But if so, we're talking about a highly historically astute screenwriter, because that name happens to be a very specific historical reference which is informed more by Zootopia's plot than it is by the mayor's lion-ness. "Lionheart," you see, was the nickname of England's King Richard I, who earned the moniker thanks to his ferocity in battle. An army commander by his mid-teens and King of England by his early 30s, Richard was imprisoned for political reasons by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who ransomed the king in hopes of building his own army to conquer southern Italy. Richard would eventually be pardoned, but during his imprisonment, his brother John staged a power grab, aligning himself with King Philip II of France with his eyes set on obtaining Normandy.

In Zootopia, Mayor Lionheart is arrested and imprisoned after Judy and Nick find the city's missing predators, all driven to savagery, being held in an asylum on the mayor's orders. His seemingly meek sheep assistant, Bellwether (Jenny Slate) takes over as mayor — but all is not as it seems. As Judy eventually discovers, Lionheart was hiding the affected predators from the public while trying to find an explanation for their condition — a condition caused by none other than Bellwether, who had commissioned the savagery-inducing "Night Howler" serum in an attempt to relegate predators to second-class citizenry.

Yes, much like his historical namesake, Lionheart could only watch from behind bars as his trusted right-hand... er, sheep, empowered by her new station, enacted her nefarious agenda. 

This may be the most highbrow reference among Zootopia's character names, but it's not the only one that takes a bit of brain work to parse out.

Mayor Lionheart isn't the only Zootopia character with a significant name

For example, take the intimidating Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). According to FandomZootopia's tough-as-nails police chief took shape during a research trip to Africa by the filmmakers, during which they found cape buffalo to be "tough, unforgiving creatures." His name is derived from the Swahili word m'bogo, which means (wait for it) "cape buffalo."

Also, take Gideon Grey, the red fox who antagonizes Judy as a child (but who grows into a polite, respectable adult). The name "Gideon" has appeared in a Disney production before: It's the name of a minor character in the classic Pinocchio, a cat who was the sidekick of a con artist fox not unlike Nick. Gideon Grey's character design is also highly reminiscent of the title character in the 1973 Disney adaptation of Robin Hood.

Then, there's the nefarious Bellwether. That is a term usually assigned to the sheep who is the leader of its herd — and indeed, Zootopia's Bellwether leads a criminal gang of sheep who synthesize the Night Howler serum, which also includes a pair of chemists named Woolter and Jesse, an overt reference to the iconic AMC drama Breaking Bad.

This kind of attention to detail is just one of the things that makes Zootopia so endlessly rewatchable. On top of being sweet, hilarious, and absolutely stunning to look at, it's a movie that is simply stuffed full of inspired gags. It's almost enough to make us wish we could live in that fanciful, titular city — just so long as we don't get stuck in line at the DMV.