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‘Zootopia’ and the Art of the Chill

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©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

**This is a user-submitted post by Heather Massey**

NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead for Disney’s Zootopia!

At one point or another, many of us have had to wait because someone ahead moved too slowly. Perhaps it was an elderly person with a walker, a child wearing leg braces, or a person in a cast, recovering from an injury or surgery. Now consider the various reactions of able-bodied people behind this mobility-challenged person (perhaps, like me, you’re one of them). Some may look on and grumble with impatience, even squeezing past the person to get ahead. Yet others may show no signs of frustration whatsoever and slow down automatically. What’s the difference between these two types of able-bodied people? Why is one group more considerate of the needs of mobility-challenged folks?


©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.


Before I address one possible answer, let’s examine one of the funniest scenes in Disney’s Zootopia: the sloths who work at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In this scene, protagonists Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde visit his friend Flash the sloth to enlist his help with their case.

That scene is a laugh riot for a number of reasons. First, the scene involves slowing down the animation to show a character who naturally moves in a slow fashion, which provides hilarious visuals. Second, it completely disrupts the script of how people are expected to behave in a conversation. When someone interrupts us, many of us stop talking. But Flash just keeps on barreling forward until he’s finished. We think he’s going to stop, but he doesn’t. It’s genius comedic timing. Third, the scene mines a lot of humor from the collision course of slow-moving animals and ones that move at a faster pace.

The scene between Judy, Nick, and Flash provides great comedy as well as interesting social commentary. The exchange can serve as a metaphor about one way able-bodied people can accommodate people with mobility challenges. Specifically, by perfecting the art of the chill.



Note the expression on Nick’s face whenever he’s listening to Flash. His patience is nothing short of amazing. Look at the relaxed way he stands and the look in his eyes. He’s clearly adapted his behavior to what Flash needs, and we get the sense this isn’t the first time he’s done this. Perhaps he has developed more patience by cultivating a unique cognitive strategy and body language stance to deploy when he’s hanging out with Flash.

One would think Nick the hustler would be the impatient one, but it’s actually Judy who exhibits rudeness with her impatience. This element makes for a nice bit of subversive storytelling given that her character arc is about how she aspires to be a hero. Yet in that scene, she’s anything but heroic.

Despite Nick’s helpful advice to “Hang in there,” Judy interrupts Flash multiple times, assumes Flash doesn’t have a good memory just because he moves slowly (note how many times she repeats the license number), and displays restlessness. She couldn’t be more inconsiderate of Flash’s nature than if she tried.

In a metaphorical sense, her actions indicate that good intentions aren’t enough.

Even though Nick tells Flash a joke in part to needle Judy, I also think it’s simply a moment of a friend being friendly. Just because Flash moves slowly doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate a good joke, and Nick knows this. He’s not going to keep Flash from enjoying a joke even if it means Nick has to wait a while for the laughter to come. And if he can tease Judy with it in the meantime, even better!

Nick’s patience brings to mind the concept of the social model of disability:

“While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.”


First promo released for Disney’s Zootopia.

Zootopia shows us a world that accommodates animals of all shapes, sizes, and needs. For example, train cars have extra head space for giraffes, and a powerful body dryer is available for hippopotamuses transitioning from their wet habitats to dry ones. This is the world’s default setting. Nick puts the social model of disability concept into action by automatically accommodating Flash without a second thought. In fact, it’s his first thought.

Apparently, that part of the film’s world-building strategy was intentional:

“The filmmakers brought in an array of experts as they designed the world, from zoologists, who advised on how each species should move, to specialists on the Americans With Disabilities Act, who helped construct a city where a 2-inch character and a 27-foot character could coexist…” (via LA Times).

Even if the DMV scene was written as a mere sight gag, kudos to Disney for delivering something that aspires to be more. It’d be great if animated films could accomplish the same type of world-building for human characters with disabilities and not necessarily in a science fiction story. The more awareness there is of this issue, the greater the likelihood that routinely accommodating people with disabilities will be incorporated and normalized in the real world.

One place to start: imagine if more of us able-bodied folks assumed Nick’s relaxed demeanor every time we found ourselves behind or interacting with a mobility-challenged person. We’d all be looking like this:


That’d be a pretty cool world, right?!

What are your thoughts? Tell us in the comments below!

Heather Massey blogs about all things sci-fi romance at Galaxy Express 2.0 and is the New Releases Editor for Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @thgalaxyexpress.

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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  • Nicole Luiken Humphrey

    Cool post unpacking the layers. My family just watched Zootopia last night and today my kids are playacting sloths and my daughter has requested a library book on sloths. I think my favorite part of the scene was Flash’s slow-motion reaction to the joke.

    • I’ve re-watched that scene so many times you have no idea. The slow-mo reaction to the joke is my favorite, too! Very cool that the scene inspired your daughter. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Wow so crazy how much great things this movie has! Seriously didn’t notice this ever! Totally great article and great finding out!

    • Agree re: many elements to explore. Thanks for your interest!

    • Alexandria Lynn


  • Jeremiah Bok

    I don’t know why, but something inside completely overreacted when you said Judy was, “rude.” She was smiley and friendly as ever, what rude thing did she say? Honestly, she’s a policewoman, she should have exerted her authority and been far firmer, far less friendly and exerted her authority, maybe had another animal help.

    ‘Tennyrate, unique article, I enjoyed and was left with a warm feeling and something to think about.

    • SwanburneGirl

      Her impatience was pretty darn obvious, I’d say. Impatience with people who do things slower/differently than what we see as “normal” is one of the hallmarks of everyday casual ableism.

    • Rudeness isn’t always about saying something hurtful. More often than not, it’s in someone’s mannerisms. I see it quite often with my autistic cousin, whether it be in the form of extreme condescension or impatience. Judy’s frustration and impatience, that she doesn’t try to conceal whatsoever, definitely reflects such behaviour.

      • Jeremiah Bok

        *shrugs* First off, again, she did try to conceal it, she was very smiley and perky at first. Second off, again, she’s a policewoman trying to get evidence and she needed it fast. Lives were in danger while they wasted time. She should’ve been even less subtle than she was.

        • Doesn’t matter, she still got snippy and impatient. And I get the feeling that, again paralleling neurodivergency and other such situations in real life, if she’d gotten forceful it wouldn’t have helped. It just isn’t in their nature to go at the “normal” speed.

          • Jeremiah Bok

            I asked at the beginning what, specifically, she said that was rude, or as you just put it, snippy. I have not been told. For whatever it’s worth as somebody with mental disabilities myself I think Judy was not being bossy she was the boss.

            Anyhoo, lovely talking to you.

          • And I replied that it was nothing specifically she said, but that it was in her mannerisms, such as her tone of voice and body language.

            Aye same to you I’m sure.

    • Thanks so much for reading!

      I defined her rudeness thusly: interrupting people and/or interjecting comments before someone has finished speaking multiple times within the course of a conversation is generally considered rude, at least in the US where I live, but I’ll concede there maybe be cultural/social differences of which I’m unaware.

      True, she didn’t insult Flash verbally, but her nonverbal behavior also demonstrates impatience and a lack of consideration for Flash’s nature. She was basically asking—demanding?–him to do something (move faster) that was impossible for him to do.

      I certainly don’t think rudeness defines Judy’s whole personality; rather, this scene reveals one of her flaws, which in turn add depths to her character arc.

      I’m glad you raised the point about her friendly demeanor, because imo this scene deconstructs the idea that rudeness/impatience only manifests in certain ways (e.g., someone who looks angry and uses a harsh tone of voice). Lots of people throw shade with a smile on their face, for example. Well-meaning folks like Judy make similar mistakes all the time. I know I have!

      Re: lives being at stake: True, and part of the effectiveness of that scene is showing us that tension. My understanding is that police and detectives frequently run into obstacles that slow down investigations and that’s an unfortunate part of the job. Given how clever Judy is, I’d expect for her to find a way to speed up the process in other areas where she has direct control as a way to balance the slower part of Flash’s assistance.

      • Jeremiah Bok

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Overall I’d say that’s fair enough. I take issue with the last paragraph, I take stopping a crime, particularly one that’s a matter of life and death, over traditional courtesy but ah well.