Zootopia Concept Art / Central Station by Matthias Lechner for The Walt Disney Studios

Zootopia Concept Art / Central Station by Matthias Lechner for The Walt Disney Studios

When I first heard Disney planned to make a new feature animation about animals, I was not surprised. But after noticing people – specifically some adults friends – raving about the film, I reluctantly decided I needed to see what all the excitement was all about. Guess what? I’m now one of the raving Zootopians too.

Simply put, “Zootopia” is a movie about dreams and courage. Although the themes of the film are common within the animated genre, the film has been critically applauded for its metaphorical creativity, portraying a cast of animals, or what they called “anthropomorphic mammals”, within urban neighborhoods: Savanna Central (downtown), Tundratown, Rain Forest District, Sahara Square and Bunnyburrow.

Like its real world counterpart, downtown Savanna Central is where different animals live and work in a bustling metropolis. This utopian city comes complete with its own comprehensive municipal infrastructure system complete with different scaled commute facilities to accommodate for each species, a climate control system for cooling down Tundratown to the comfort of its inhabitants, and even a water recycling system for treating rainfalls in the Rain Forest District. Keen eyed architecture enthusiasts might notice the design of the Central Station in “Zootopia” resembles the Atocha railway station in Madrid, famous for its inner garden.

Madrid Atocha Railway Station / Creative Commons photo

Madrid Atocha Railway Station / Creative Commons photo

Most fictional animal films tend to portray beasts in an anthropomorphic style, or conclude with the wild animal finally being tamed at the end (such as in, “How to Train Your Dragon”). The narratives reflect the desire for a harmonious existence with wildlife, but only on human terms. In either case, animals are left as either pets or livestock. “Zootopia”‘s standout narrative feature is avoiding this trope.

Nara deer / Creative Commons photo

Nara deer / Creative Commons photo

Nara, a real city in Japan, is famous for the wild deers lingering everywhere. Under the protection of local residents and visitors, those “wild” deers commonly take over streets and parks, without any serious concerns about shelters and food supply like their wild cousins. The deer-hospitable city reminds me of another movie, one created by Studio Ghibli, “Pom Poko”. The film is a dark comedy about Japanese raccoons known as tanukis trying to protect their homeland from human’s urbanization. The ultimately fail in the end, so the tanukis transform into human being to survive in the city.

In reality, urban designers, architects, and landscape architects have been experimenting with design methodologies with the hopes of finding a balance for urban coexistence between local wildlife and humans for many years. But the reality is that urbanization sacrifices part of the natural ecosystem forever, and it never fully recovers regardless of how many trees we plant or how many more reservoirs we build.

An interesting project being proposed is Maryland-based Working Group on Adaptive Systems’ “Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency”. The project proposes future space exploration manned with only robots and animals – no human being – essentially sending out a self-developing ecosystem into outer space without any human intervention. A whimsical project for sure, but it could prove an important and humbling reminder that life can continue on with or without the human race.

Urban animals have sacrificed and adapted to the human world, their adaptability possibly attributed to their wild nature. Technically speaking, human beings are also animals: Homo Sapiens – a mammal. So one might wonder, did we also sacrifice and adapt our nature for civilization’s sake?


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