Hold On! Gimme A Sec

Cryptozoo review: Dash Shaw’s animated adventure is definitely not for kids

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[Ed. note: This review was first published in conjunction with Cryptozoo’s release at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s streaming release.]

In a world secretly inhabited by mythical monsters, three women attempt to gather the surviving strange creatures and transport them to a sanctuary where they can be appreciated in peace. More brutal plans for the world’s cryptids have been devised by a military bounty hunter.

Longerline: Dash Shaw, the comics artist and indie animator behind My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, returns with Cryptozoo, a similarly stilted, wild, and unpredictable film. The film begins with a dreamy sex scene in which partners Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) get naked in the woods at night and fantasize about an ideal hippie future of world peace and equality but quickly devolves into a grotesquely bloody turn. They live in an unappealing world that doesn’t value lofty ideals or good vibes. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), a cryptid hunter, is well aware of this: she has been trying to protect cryptids from capture, exploitation, and slaughter since she was a child when a dream-eating Japanese creature known as a Baku gave her nightmares.

Lauren’s opposite number Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the world, scooping up her finds for the US military. It’s a difficult job, both because locals in various locations around the world tend to capture cryptids for nefarious purposes and because Lauren’s opposite number Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the world, scooping up her finds for the US military. He is particularly interested in Baku because he believes it can be used to erase “the counterculture’s dreams” and put an end to left-wing protests for good. Lauren, with the help of the gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), their ageing idealist patron Joan (Grace Zabriskie), and the untrustworthy mercenary faun Gustav, ends up chasing the Baku just ahead of him (Peter Stormare).

Four characters from Cryptozoo: Two women, a boy with no head and a face on his chest, and a gorgonImage: Sundance Institute

What’s Cryptozoo trying to do?

The film is ostensibly an action film, complete with gunfights, fistfights, cryptid-on-cryptid slaughter, and a quest that ends badly for a large number of humans and animals. It does, however, have a strong anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian streak that extends beyond the military-industrial complex to humanity’s relationship with animals in general. The gorgon Phoebe is disappointed when she first sees the soon-to-open Cryptozoo, the sanctuary where Joan is housing dozens of oddities, some with human intelligence. She observes that it resembles a shopping mall rather than a refuge. It certainly does — there are strip malls and carnival sideshows galore, with Lauren boasting that they sell toys based on every confirmed cryptid. The gaudy zoo may not be her ideal form of protection, but she claims it is necessary because it needs to make money to survive.

Joan is a purebred pie-in-the-sky type whose worldview revolves around love, while the Cryptozoo is built around that compromise between idealism and practicality. She’s in a supportive, passionate relationship with one of her cryptids, and she believes that more of these kinds of connections can solve the world’s problems. But it’s possible that she and her fellow preservationists will benefit more than the cryptids. Eventually, the film implies that attempting to contain them isn’t helping them. Lauren’s bravery in standing up to predators who see every creature and person around them as a source of profit is recognized by Shaw. But even she is chastised by Nick, who believes she is doing the work for the sake of her own sanity as well as the thrill of it.

The quote that says it all: “We can only greet the strange and unusual with love. And if we show them love, they will return love. And love will spread and envelope all the beings on our diverse, wondrous world.”

A wounded woman in a green cloak and goggles lies in the rain as her rival stands over her in CryptozooImage: Sundance Institute

Does it get there?

In the midst of all the actions and incidents, Cryptozoo’s morals can feel hazy, as the film is more concerned with communicating its characters’ widely disparate personalities and goals than with finding a common ground between them. This makes the story feel more realistic than the average adventure story, but it also makes it messier and more prone to distractions, such as a minor subplot centered on Phoebe’s impending marriage. The cryptid-protectors aren’t a cohesive or even focused group; rather, they’re a loose collection of temporary allies who don’t agree on methodology or purpose unless the situation becomes critical.

The pacing varies as well; the opening woodsy idyll feels like an unhurried short story, with Matthew poised naked atop the high Cryptozoo fence as just one of many lovely dream images. However, a fight between Lauren and Nick over an alkonost, a Russian bird-woman hybrid, feels more like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with Belloq swooping in to take the idol after Indy has done all the legwork. The film alternates between action and dream logic, as well as advocating high ideals and watching people suffer as they try and fail to put them into action. It’s certainly a cynical story — Shaw’s script has little faith either in his heroes’ ability to save the day or in their good intentions in trying.

What does that get us?

Cryptozoo is a window into a decidedly uncommercial mind, and a form of storytelling that isn’t the practised, polished committee effort that comes out of animation houses like Disney and DreamWorks, much like My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, or for that matter any good outsider art. Cryptozoo is noticeably focused on an arthouse audience — not just because of the kid-unfriendly sexual and violent content here, but also because of the entire project’s philosophical bent and complicated point-of-view shifts.

The rough hand-drawn feel of projects like Cryptozoo can be shocking after generations of increasingly processed and visually elaborate films from those outlets and others imitating them. It’s easy to call it ugly, but idiosyncratic is a better description. To see where the textures of paints and pencils give the images a rougher and more specific feel, or where shifts in style — like the difference between the raw contours of Lauren’s face and the fine-lined detail of Phoebe’s snake-hair — give the protagonists even more visual character, the visuals are worth a closer look.

Cryptozoo’s character movement is reminiscent of Indonesian wayang puppetry at times, with rigid figures moving primarily around the joints. Some sequences take on a completely different tone, such as the lovely light show put on by a group of sentient light-creatures at one point. Nothing can be taken for granted about where the storey is going or how it will get there stylistically. That sense of something new and different happening, of that anti-capitalist, anti-conformist, anti-containment bent that stretches throughout the storey also extending into every aspect of the film’s aesthetics, is one of the biggest joys of Shaw’s projects.

The most meme-able moment: The most obvious ones are when Phoebe’s head snakes bite people. Cryptozoo is full of startling moments and oddball visuals that creative memers could certainly repurpose, but perhaps the most obvious ones are when Phoebe’s head-snakes bite people. The victims aren’t just poisoned; their flesh revolts and distorts, taking on Akira-like characteristics. The image is a good starting point for a meme along the lines of “Oh no, the consequences of my own actions!”

When can we see it? Cryptozoo is now widely available for digital rental or purchase via streaming platforms like Amazon and Vudu.

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