This week is the annual animated film in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, and Nathaniel has selected a real recent example of the form: 2016’s very own Zootopia, the smash hit that has become (unadjusted for inflation) the third highest-grossing film ever made by the Disney animation studios, one of the year’s most acclaimed wide releases, and a film that I just didn’t care about very much at all.
That being said, “didn’t care about” doesn’t mean “haven’t thought about”, and as soon as Nathaniel announced the title I knew where I wanted to go for my picks for a shot. It’s from the film’s middle & best third, when it is most committed to being a weird film noir dressed inside the body of a silly talking animals comedy for children set inside a pretty remarkable series of the world’s major biomes transformed into urban environments. The most unique thing about Zootopia is its genre promiscuity: a social issues picture, a surprisingly grim and cynical story about civic corruption, a trite “follow your dreams!” kiddie flick, and a talking animal comedy parodying our own society all share space in the film’s 108 minutes. And the shot I’ve picked, along with the moment in which it occurs, is one of the most striking examples of that.
Where we are: rabbit police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and fox conman Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) have followed the thread of their case to the jungle neighborhood in the city of Zootopia. There, they interview nervous (and unpleasantly scarred) black panther Manchas (Jessi Corti), and catch him right as he starts to break down in a manner much more animalistic than anthropomorphic. Out of several possibilities, this shot is, I think, far and away the most striking part of that process.
It’s so damn noir. I mean, just the use of depth: the frame is completely dominated by the big panther in the foreground, writing in agony, but the color contrasts direct our eyes to the far back, where Judy and Nick stand as horrified witnesses to the action. And I do very much love their perfectly legible expressions, even in that tiny format. Really, if that was all this shot had going on, framing its its heroes in a sickly-lit halo in the background, contrasting them with the twisted posture of the panther, I probably wouldn’t need anything else. Sometimes, being striking as all hell is all you need; and how many CGI animated films noirs are there, anyway?
But I also love the frame’s sense of real danger. The reason this sequence has clung to me tenaciously while a whole lot of Zootopia frankly hasn’t is that it’s a sudden, shocking, terrifying intrusion of very grown-up tension and PG-rated body horror – for what else can we call an anthropoid cat suddenly losing control of himself physically and turning into this story’s version of a monster? And I don’t think any other image from this sequence captures that so well: the slightly cocked angle puts us ill at ease to begin with, and then the obvious dismay on the panther’s face and the alarmed shock on the detectives’ – Nick’s flat ears are the real kicker here – makes this all slightly unbearable even before we have a chance to see what the hell is happening to the poor animal. It is menacing – it is old school, “kids’ movies should be ready, willing, and able to seriously fuck kids up” kind of animated menace.
And besides all of that, it takes advantage superbly of the film’s gimmick: yes, in a world full of sentient, civilised animals, this would be the scariest possible thing. For Manchas, it’s being unable to control himself as he reverts. For Judy and Nick, it’s being confronted with the reality that a normal citizen just like themselves is about to turn into a savage, hungry predator. It really plays up the conflicts that arise in a specifically animal-based society, and that’s the most important strength Zootopia has in its back pocket.