An All-New Disability Inclusive DreamWorks Animation

Team Zenko Go is an all-new DreamWorks Animation series produced with Mainframe Studios. The series follows a secret squad of young do-gooders determined to make their town the happiest town in the world. One of these do-gooders happens to be a wheelchair user. “Ari” is voiced by Hartley Bernier, a fourteen-year-old actor who lives with Chronic Illness. Team Zenko Go is a series that makes kindness cool and shows kids that you don’t always need to claim credit when doing a good deed. Jack Thomas (Dragons Rescue Riders) serves as Executive Producer and Showrunner. Thomas says, “In this social media crazed world, where people always record everything they do, we wanted to make the point that helping someone in need is something you should do because it’s the right thing to do, not because it will make you famous or get you ‘likes’.”

Team Zenko Go has managed to avoid all too familiar disability tropes such as, for instance, villains, victims or inspirations. Instead, Team Zenko Go has created the character of Ari with authenticity, depth, humanity and equity. “One of the early things that I did to develop his character was to come up with the idea that Ari was not a member of the team at first. He’s just a new kid who moves to town and who, in a period of three days, figures out something no one else in Harmony Harbor has ever been able to figure out – that there is a secret team of do-gooders running around. Not only does he figure it out, he catches them in the act. And then the twist is that he doesn’t want to expose them. He wants to join them! By introducing his character this way, we instantly made him, at the very least, an equal of the other three kids on Team Zenko Go. We also made a conscious decision to never really mention Ari’s wheelchair unless it was somehow plot-relevant. And I don’t think it ever was,” says Thomas.

The character of “Ari” is not a first for DreamWorks. Spirit Riding Free includes Cassidy Huff, who plays “Eleanor” a formidable horse racer. And in 2021, Pavar Snipe provides the voice of “Angela Baker”, a Black, disabled military veteran in the series Dragons: The Nine Realms.

Disability representation is still few and far between, especially in animation. “In science fiction and fantasy stories advanced technology or powerful magic, writers can get careless with their world-building thoughtlessly “erasing” disabled people from their narratives. Declaring that genetic engineering, healing magic, or mystical enchantments can be used to “fix” disabled people. There are two big problems with this viewpoint: first, there is a wide range of physical and mental impairments people can have, not all of which can be changed. Second, many disabled people don’t want to be “fixed,” seeing their impairments as an essential part of the lives they lead. For them, the idea of “curing” all disabled people smacks of prejudice and eugenics, a toxic mindset valuing people only for how “strong,” “useful,” or “normal” they are to their societies”, mentions Coleman Gailloreto in ScreenRant.

When DreamWorks added this new character into their world, they wanted to ensure they “got it right”. So DreamWorks hired Disability Consultant Kristen Sharpe to guide on “Ari’s movements, and [make sure his] interactions were accurate.” Sharpe would also ensure that the nuances of language and interactions for those speaking with “Ari” were true to life.

In addition to Bernier’s acting career, he plays an essential role as an ambassador for The Hospital for Sick Children, otherwise known as “SickKids.” SickKids is affiliated with the University of Toronto and is Canada’s most research-intensive hospital. Bernier says, “I think that being a Sick Kids ambassador, being in the commercials and doing speeches really helped me hone my skills as an actor.”

Authentic casting was a priority for Thomas, who mentions, “I think whenever you can find an actor that has lived some of the experiences of your character, it gives them an advantage in playing the part.” Thomas’ main worry about working with Bernier was not that he is chronically ill, but was due to his lack of experience as a voiceover actor, “it’s a very specific style of acting that even some great on-camera actors struggle with. Beyond that, there was a bit of an unknown element with how quickly Hartley might get fatigued. But we quickly discovered it was nothing we couldn’t work through. We planned breaks in his workday, and we also tried to write his lines with shorter sentences to help with his delivery,” says Thomas.

To work with Bernier was Voice Director Nicole Oliver. Bernier mentions, “[Nicole] really helped me learn the ins and outs of voice work. Each week I would take time to go over the script and write notes for myself so that I was ready to go when it was time to record.”

Bernier needed to stay protected during production due to the pandemic. “Production was so accommodating in letting me record from a small home studio in my bedroom. They made me feel really safe and supported.” Thomas mentioned that “we could see his Dad’s arm from time to time on our Zoom feed adjusting the mic settings as a totally self-taught audio engineer.” Team Zenko Go is a fantastic example of making the production process accessible.

Bernier says, “my favourite thing about Ari is that he is disabled” he also mentioned that “we are into the same stuff- like comic books and superhero movies. We are both very determined and maybe even a little stubborn at times!” When Bernier read the character, he immediately knew that he wanted to play him, “I have wanted to be a voice actor for a very long time. Being in “Sick Kids” commercials over the years really helped me discover this passion. Landing this role was a dream come true!” finishes Bernier.

Team Zenko Go teaches us that an accessible, disability inclusive, and highly entertaining project is not only possible but the best way to create. As Bernier phrases so well, the show teaches us that “a little kindness can go a long way and make the world a better place”.

All twelve episodes of Team Zenko Go are to debut on Netflix on March 15th 2022.