The unifying characteristic of the vast majority of feature-length films made by Walt Disney Animation Studios has been an unflagging, self-conscious classicism. These films, by and large, exist out of time, adopting folklore from across the world and treating it with a careful remove, with only an isolated gag here or there reminding us that they were made at any given point in time. Thus even if two things are as tonally, visually, technologically, and thematically dissimilar as 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 2013's Frozen, one still walks away with the sensation that they were both made with an eye towards longevity; Snow White is still an unassailable, rock-solid classic almost 80 years later, and Frozen seems to have been carefully shaped to make sure that it can last 80 years on its own, triggering the same emotions in the kids of 2092 as it does today. Assuming that in 2092 there's still anything resembling cinema.

There have been a scattered handful of exceptions to this tendency over the decades, one-off films where a distinctly contemporary sensibility sneaks its way in through the classicism: the celebrity voice casting and then-newish jazz music driving 1967's The Jungle Book and 1971's The Aristocats the pop star ensemble of 1988's Oliver & Company, set against the urban grottiness of Ed Koch-era New York; Robin Williams's litany of pop culture references in the otherwise thoroughly square fairy tale Aladdin, from 1992. These exceptions stand out dramatically from the rigorously non-concrete worlds of most Disney films, and not to particularly impressive effect: the first three films I just named are among my least favorite films in the Disney canon, and their trapped-in-amber commitment to the pop culture idiom of their day isn't least among the reasons why.

It's for this reason that I've been following with some alarm what appears to be a definite trend in Disney's filmmaking ever since the fateful moment that Pixar Animation Studios' John Lasseter was hired as Chief Creative Officer, in an attempt to right the foundering ship of Walt Disney Feature Animation (as it was then named). The first film with a significant input from Lasseter was 2008's Bolt, which was one of the most uncharacteristic films the studio had released to that point in time, with its slick, marketing-ready sense of humor and its satiric use of Disney Channel-esque TV production. But it feels practically homespun compared to the films that have come in its wake. During the Lasster era, Disney's output can be split almost perfectly into two camps: timeless musicals about princesses, and ultra-contemporary self-aware comedies that feel far more like the studio's 2010s competitors than anything typical of Disney at any point in its history. The postmodern video arcade world in 2012's Wreck-It Ralph was a dead ringer for Pixar; while even with sticky insertions of Disneyesque sentiment and an unbearably cute sidekick, 2014 Big Hero 6 is still a superhero movie from an era when they're thick as fall leaves.

But they have nothing on Zootopia, the first of Disney's two releases from 2016 (the first year the studio has put out two features since 2002). With this film Disney fully embraces its inner DreamWorks Animation, making a movie that is so reliant on cultural touchstones of the mid-2010s and random, generally awkward movie references, that it's almost impossible to predict if it will or will not survive more than a few years. This is the closest Disney has come to the "everything's a parody" model of DWA's Shrek and even more so its sequels - not even the studio's transparent attempt to make a DWA clone back in 2005, with the miserable Chicken Little, hit the target so neatly. The good news first: Zootopia is considerably better than Shrek (admittedly, I hate that film more than most people; but 15 years later, is anybody really willing to go to bat for it as an animated classic?), and it is vastly superior to Chicken Little across every matrix by which films can be compared. Hell, it's probably even better than Big Hero 6, being as it is in possession of considerably more ingenious visual ideas and more appealing, unusual characters (admittedly, again, I like BH6 less than most people, so it's no real triumph to be better than it in my esteem).

It's far from great, though, committing some of the worst sins the 21st Century American studio animated feature knows how to commit. For the love of all the saints, it ends with a dance party. Worst of all, one set to a suffocatingly awful original song performed by Shakira, but I don't think that even the best new pop song in a generation would justify ending a cartoon about talking animals with a dance party. It feels like we just succeeded in killing animated dance party finales, why the hell did they have go and resurrect it?

The astonishingly dull-minded choice to end with a dance party speaks to one of the most obvious problems plaguing Zootopia, which is that it never completely figured out how what its story was, and sometimes shortcuts were taken. In 2011, when director Byron Howard started casting about for his next project after Tangled (which can rest secure in still being clearly the best of Disney's 3-D CGI films), what he came up with was "a culture built by anthropomorphic animals without the influence of humans". And there are certainly worse places to start: talking, clothed animals are a grueling commonplace in the history of animated cinema throughout the world, but usually just as straight-up proxies for human beings. Designing a world that resembles what animals left to their animal selves might have come up with, given intelligence and opposable thumbs, is undoubtedly an intriguing hook, and it's easy to understand why Lasseter gave the green light to the idea when when it was, as such not an idea, but just a setting.

The reality of Zootopia isn't up to the most fanciful version of that setting we can imagine, but it's stll pretty goddamn terrific. The titular city is a metropolis divided into twelve self-contained biospheres, such as tropical rain forest or equatorial desert (we do not see or even hear of several of these, which I think is great: it implies a much bigger world that we're just getting a little slice of, and it offers room for some considerable creativity and expansion in the no-doubt inescapable sequels - of course, "creative Disney sequel" is just about the least-likely thing to exist in all of the world, but a body can dream). These zones have been designed as a hybrid of the natural world and a modern city driven by commerce and mass transit, and the solutions the designers came up with are funny and organic (David Goetz and Dan Cooper are the credited production designers, but the visual development team is many, many names long). There's a demented logic to some of the best gags (individual-sized icebergs as a moving walkway in the arctic biosphere) that feels like top-level Looney Tunes, while the backgrounds are jam-packed with a non-stop barrage of DreamWorksy puns on the names and iconography of businesses. This isn't always a great thing - I'm surely not the only one who finds something deeply unnerving about animated rabbits and foxes using smart phones, and it's primarily what time-stamps the movie to 2016 in a way that can't possibly do well for its long-term survival - but it speaks highly to the level of free-flowing imagination that went into the creation of Zootopia as a place. It's a playground and sketchbook and it's delicious.

Alas, the bulk of the film takes place in the city center, which looks for all purposes like any randomly-chosen major American city, only with animal gags in the backgrounds. Even here, there are inspired touches, particularly a the brief action sequence set in the rodent district. It's a perfectly scaled-down version of downtown Manhattan or Chicago transformed into a brightly comic daikaiju eiga by the presence of the giant weasel and rabbit characters who look so tiny elsewhere throughout the movie. Mostly, the city center looks just fine - an exquisitely well-rendered and softly-lit version of just fine production design. It is handsome and thoroughly unimaginative, and kind of a violation of the thing that Zootopia intends to be.

And that, in a nutshell, is the strength and the problem of the film overall: it is much too willing to abandon boundless creativity to wallow in an endless succession of overfamiliar narrative constraints. But at the same time, it uses those constraints generally quite well - there are something like three genres jostling for attention, and the one that gets the most screentime is almost entirely successfully. It absolutely does end up using animals as straight-up proxies for human beings; but sometimes, shockingly and pleasantly, it spends a whole scene not doing that, and enjoying the weirdness of animal behaving as animals, in the most incongruous setting. It's impossible to ignore how much the story has been cobbled together (by seven different credited people, and you can feel it), in some cases at the last minute: the production team explained, during the film's promotional campaign, that they switched the film's protagonist only about 16 months before the release date, as though that's something to brag about and not a dramatic overhaul as late in the process as it possibly could be executed without leaving tattered ribbons where the story ought to be. Hence the overfamiliarity: the film uses an abundance of stock tropes to keep things moving on some kind of track. It's not as clumsy as in Frozen, which welded the first and third acts from one movie onto either end of the second act from a very different one, but you can still smell the fresh paint and the new carpet, if you will. The script was another rewrite away from being, like, ready ready.

So let's start peeking at some of those tropes: Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit with dreams of being a cop, and since her childhood she's fantasised about moving from the farming community where her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) and her multitude of siblings, all the way to the shining beacon on the hill, Zootopia. She finally gets her chance thanks to the "Mammal Inclusion Initiative" instituted by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), which seeks to introduce smaller mammals into a police force made up primarily of large predatory species (one of the many small points where the screenplay just plain gives up: all the characters are mammals, and the film makes note of this multiple times - so why the "Mammal Inclusion Initiative"?). Naturally enough, the whole force looks down on her, especially water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, getting to use his natural English accent for a change), who assigns her to parking duty. It's in that capacity that she meets fox conman Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who plays her for a complete rube on her first day. But this experience gives her a useful fire in her belly to prove herself, which she does by inserting herself into a missing person case - a local otter, Emmitt Otterton,* is one of several predators to have gone missing recently, and Judy promises his wife (Octavia Spencer) that she'll crack the case. Along with Nick, she's able to determine that the otter has been in some way driven to revert to his primal instincts, one of several predators to have experienced the same kind of psychopathy. Great for Judy's career - she's a full-on hero cop now - but terrible for Zootopia, given that the delicate harmony between the 90% of the population descended from non-predatory species and the 10% descended from predators will go all to hell if people start suspecting that any predator can turn savage at any moment. There's a whole additional conspiracy plotline that sprouts off of this point, complete with the fourth consecutive secret villain reveal in a Disney movie - dear lord, I miss the days when the character with the most black clothing was the most evil, and we could just go on about the matter of the story - and one that's also absurdly easy to guess. But we've got enough to go on.

The bulk of the film is a gratifyingly straightforward mystery solved by an antagonistic pair - green cop, streetwise con man - who slowly come to respect and admire each other, which is a formula so musty that even making the characters cartoon animals can't make it seem fresh. But it does work. Considering how weirdly modular the narrative is (the shift from "cop mystery" to "conspiracy thriller" is completely barbaric), it's surprisingly effective and tight, moving so quickly that neither the film's magnificently indulgent 108-minute running time (it is the second-longest Disney animated feature ever, after Fantasia) nor the grab bag of self-conscious cop movie clichés really come to the fore. Jared Bush & Phil Johnston, who wrote the screenplay based on all those story notes, streamline it into a nifty little neo-noir, touring a few dark corners of Zootopia in scenes that understand that the character interactions are more interesting than the mystery, but that the mystery is what has to keep up the momentum of the character development.

As things that aren't a straightforward mystery, the film is a bit more awkward. "Country kid dreams of the city, is shocked to find it's cruel and impersonal" is an even more ancient formula than sniping between mismatched crimefighters, and Zootopia treats it with a good deal more sincerity, not least by stapling it to the "you can be anything" message endemic to modern children's movies. This is where the film gets itself in the most trouble, maybe: it is desperately anxious to have Themes, and stunningly bad at expressing them. There's a stab at an anti-racist statement, but it's self-defeating: the plot and themes make sense in reference to the film's own logic, but it simply doesn't map to America. Predators can't be, at one and the same time, an oppressed minority but also the hands on all the levers of power. The film also tries to make its argument against biological determinism and its argument against socially constructed prejudice the exact same argument, which doesn't even make sense in reference to the film's own logic. Particularly when most of the characters in the film are acting in biologically determined ways.

None of this would matter, if the filmmakers - Howard was ultimately joined for directing duties by Wreck-It Ralph's Rich Moore - weren't so hellbent on foregrounding it, in what turn out to be some of the film's worst moments: a little aside about how "cute" is a word that only rabbits can use to describe rabbits is a mild groaner at worst, slightly impeding the momentum of the exposition, but the film slams into a brick wall when Shakira shows up to voice pop star gazelle Gazelle as a concerned celebrity activist making an appeal towards societal peace. Zootopia wants real bad to be a message movie, but all of its strengths lie in other directions, and the specifics of its world-building are exactly the wrong fit for making any kind of commentary on race in America. It's much, much better when it's metaphorically talking about gender - small prey mammals as women in a hostile male-dominated space, like Judy, or the mayor's sheep aide, Bellwether (Jenny Slate). In a shocking coincidence, this much more effective, intelligent, and narrative-justified thematic messaging is also the one that the film doesn't feel compelled to openly insert into dialogue.

Frankly, though, none of that matters terribly much: the film's attempts to be socially relevant are weird, but mostly incidental to the matter of just being a rock-solid comic mystery, and here Zootopia shines. Beyond the mostly snug writing after the tedious opening sequence (where the "follow your dreams!" plotline is most cloyingly in the lead), the film is blessed by a terrific pair of lead vocal performances - the whole cast is quite good, actually, with a Pixaresque focus on semi-famous people who fit their characters really well, but Goodwin and Bateman are certainly the cream of the crop, even if Bateman in particular is really just playing the same character he always does. The character designs are straightforward as can be, but that's not the same as being bad. If the humanoid animals feel more "human" than not, it's to their benefit as emotional actors, and their facial animation resemble the broad expressions of DreamWorks characters done with the higher technical capacity of Disney. Or better yet - this is what happens when you take a '30s cartoon with funny animals and lovingly labor over it in three dimensions and apply a layer of the most tangible, touchable fuzz and fur that I've seen in an animated movie. Photorealism meets cartoony excess - a weird marriage, and admittedly one that doesn't always land. I'm not persuaded that Disney's love affair with fully-rendered CGI is paying off dividends: it's a little distressing how much Zootopia doesn't deviate from the exact aesthetic that the studio has been using throughout the 2010s (it looks very like Big Hero 6 in most ways that aren't directly related to the animals' surfaces), and more than any of their movies of the 2010s, this is the one that I most desperately wish had been done in cel-style 2-D animation.

Aye, but when it does land, it's a right marvel. Zootopia does plenty wrong, from its enervating series of snarky in-jokes about Disney itself (there's a Frozen/"Let It Go" gag that lands with a ponderous thud like the doors of a crypt), to its soul-sucking riff on The Godfather; but it gets a lot more right. The world is exciting and fun to explore; the characters are vivid, energetically-played, and their relationship is beautifully sincere and moving. It's a fun, sweet movie, enjoyable to look at and easy to laugh with. I would still prefer that this not be the mode Disney idles in for any longer than it has to, but there are far worse animated films every year - enjoy the ones that actually earn their emotional appeals while they're here.

*If one person, because of this film, is steered towards the superb 1977 Jim Henson special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, it was all worth it.