There's this scene in Zootopia, the new Disney movie, in which Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a peppy rabbit rookie cop, and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), the charming fox and small time con artist she's recruited to assist her in a missing persons case, are standing over Deputy Mayor Dawn Bellweather's (Jenny Slate) computer. As Dawn tries to help them track down a lead, Nick becomes entranced by the sheep's fleecy updo when it's right at eye level. In an encounter that deliberately evokes one of black hair and the obliviously boundary-free people who feel entitled to help themselves to a feel, Nick reaches out and pats Dawn's fleece gently, then digs his fingers in it until an outraged Judy scolds him to stop.
"You can't just touch a sheep's wool!" she hisses.
Zootopia takes place in a universe populated entirely by highly evolved animals who wear clothes (except for the naturists among them), have jobs, and live together in civilized, not quite perfect harmony. The city of the title is an ingeniously realized metropolis of artificial microclimates (desert, tundra, rainforest) and different-sized streets and services that manages to be visually delightful while leaving unanswered trickier questions, like just what the carnivores eat now that everyone gets along.
It's a world in which race does not exist. But species certainly do, and they provide a fuzzier, cuddlier way for Zootopia to get at some thorny issues of prejudice and profiling. On a broad, kid-friendly scale, the movie does this through the developing of Judy and Nick's cross-species friendship and how they overcome the assumptions placed on them and that they hold for each other — a story about acceptance and the damage caused by prejudgments. But Zootopia is filled with more specific references that signal its aims unmissably to older viewers, from the moment Judy, who becomes the first rabbit to graduate from the police academy courtesy of a "mammal inclusion initiative," firmly informs someone that "a bunny can call another bunny 'cute,'" but that it's really not OK for other animals to do it.
Zootopia, which was directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, with Jared Bush co-directing, isn't the best animated feature Disney's made. Its main narrative — a city-hopping (LOL) rabbit–fox mystery involving a dozen or so disappearances, organized crime, and a possible conspiracy — feels too heavy for its bright and bouncy tone, like it's a darker structure that's been, Roger Rabbit style, shoved into Toontown. Judy and Nick are a deftly created mismatched duo who, poignantly, took opposing lessons from similar, formative childhood experiences with bullying. But the other characters are hit or miss — the sloths working at the DMV allow for a sequence that's a paean to comic timing, but a mob boss voiced by Maurice LaMarche as a Godfather reference feels cheap, an easy, Shark Tale-level joke wedged into a movie that's supposed to be better than that.
But that's the thing about Zootopia. It's from the venerable Walt Disney Animation Studios, a brand that's made a decades-long fetish out of fairy tale and talking animal timelessness, but the issues it wants to tackle stop not all that far short of conversations central to Black Lives Matter. It's torn between classic animated film instincts and more urgent ones. No one gets killed by a cop in Zootopia, but the city becomes gripped with police-incited paranoia about the predator minority, overcome with suspicion that they really are inherently more dangerous, a population that can't be trusted and that everyone else needs to be protected from. There's a scene in which one character instinctively flinches from another, and, for a small moment, it's a shocking betrayal. Zootopia is a place where anyone can be anything, as Judy idealistically trumpets, except when you're reminded that everyone's already assigned you qualities based on what species you were born as.
In times like that, Zootopia feels boldly and almost jarringly ambitious. Take the early instance in which Judy praises Nick for being "articulate," a word whose loaded sting is met by Nick's butter-wouldn't-melt smile. "It's rare that I find someone so non-patronizing," he replies with peak-Bateman, get-a-load-of-this-asshole evenness. The movie, to what is (for the most part) its benefit, isn't one in which the characters or species are meant to correlate to real world groups. Judy, Nick, and the other Zootopia characters might reference things like how the mayor hired someone to secure "the sheep vote," but they're channeling aspects of a conversation about race, not standing in directly for parties within it. The voice casting — from Goodwin and Bateman in the main roles to Shakira, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Tommy Chong, and Octavia Spencer in supporting ones — seems deliberately chosen to avoid having any one character fall into easy associations.
Zootopia never tries to be that neat, though there is a point at which its metaphors get a little too messy. When a movie that references relevant topics of racial discussion then flips into a plot about the nefarious triggering of uncontrollable biological instincts in unwilling Zootopian citizens, it's a briefly uncomfortable turn. Animals have inarguable biological differences that they've been able to mostly put behind them in Zootopia, but humans being divided up the same way is the stuff of pseudo-scientific racism, no matter how unintended the parallel.
The movie manages to recover, and becomes a story in which its characters learn, grow, and become better anthropomorphized creatures — you know, as they should in a Disney movie. And though Zootopia doesn't have the emotional heft of the finest of these animated affairs, it has a gutsiness that's impressive, awkward beats and all.
For most of the slowly shifting history of Disney animation, straightforward representation has been offered — different cultures, different settings, different princesses. But Zootopia is a movie about representation, and what it means to face expectations that have nothing to do with your actual identity. Talking animals have come a long way.