Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia

CN: Mild spoilers for the movie “Zootopia” (aka “Zootropolis” in some countries) but I don’t think they’ll ruin the movie for you at all.

I had the pleasure of seeing “Zootopia,” Disney’s new animated film, on the second day it was out. Spouse and I went with little knowledge of what the movie would be, primarily because it looked cute and had a bunny as the main character. I tend to really love animated family movies.

Much has already been written about the racial politics of this film. It’s excellent and really complex, working hard to tell a story about prejudice that’s far more complex than movies aimed at kids usually are. It explores prejudice, and overcoming it, on both the individual and systemic scale. It shows how structures of power can be corrupt and wrong, and how those in power can manipulate the prejudice of others to build their strength. I loved it.

Additionally, I noticed something else while watching this movie. The world “Zootopia” takes place in accommodates animal characters of a huge range of sizes and shapes. All of the characters are mammals (the scientist part of me appreciated that they acknowledge this in the script), but the mammal class is hugely varied.

“Zootopia” is both the name of the film, and the name of the capital city in which most of the movie takes place. The city comprises several ecosystems, recognizing that the same environment is not comfortable for both a savanna gazelle and a polar bear. All mammals can cross these ecosystem borders, and it seems clear that the immediate downtown area is where all species interact regularly.

As the main character, Judy Hopps, sees the city for the first time we get a beautiful sweeping view of all of the ways Zootopia recognizes the needs of its different citizens. Hippos in business suits come out of the water to blowdryers. A beverage stand sends a drink up a small lift for a giraffe. Hamsters (who apparently make good bureaucrats?) come from the small mammal part of the city via habitrails.

This scene is a stunning way of showing how a community could work to make public spaces accessible to people with varying needs too. The creativity put into making the city easy to use for such a diverse group is beautiful.

The team at Disney didn’t stop there. Once Judy is settled into the city and the shine wears off, the ways in which inaccessible design is used for institutional oppression become clear. There are certain places not everyone is welcome, and the spaces themselves show that. Judy runs up against this in her first moments on the job. This is something people with physical disabilities encounter constantly in our world. No ramp? You’re not welcome here. Reception desk too high to see over? This establishment isn’t really for people like YOU.

I applaud “Zootopia” both for displaying really creative ideas for accessibility and for recognizing the ways built environments can send messages of non-inclusion. I especially like that they included this in a broader story that’s mostly about race, displaying intersectionality in a way that perfectly melds with the world building and doesn’t feel preachy.

Edit notes: This post experienced minor editing on 3/17/2016 to fix a few small typos. Nothing of substance changed.

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Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia
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