Cryptozoo review: Dash Shaw’s animated adventure is strictly for adults
[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.]
Connection: In a world secretly filled with mythical monsters, three women attempt to round up the surviving strange creatures and bring them to a sanctuary where people can enjoy them in peace. A military bounty hunter has more brutal plans for the world’s cryptids.
Long line: Dash Shaw, the comic book artist and freelance animator behind the pleasantly bizarre 2016 My whole high school is sinking into the sea, come back with Cryptozoo, which is equally staid, wild and unpredictable. Opening to a dreamy sex scene, where partners Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) strip down in the woods at night and dream of an ideal hippie future of peace and equality in the world, the film takes on a grotesque and bloody turn almost immediately. They live in a lousy world that doesn’t live up to high ideals and groovy vibes. Cryptid hunter Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) certainly knows: since her childhood, when a Japanese dream-eating creature called baku rid her of her nightmares, Lauren tried to protect the cryptids from capture, from the exploitation and slaughter.
It’s hard work, both because inhabitants of sites around the world tend to capture cryptids for nefarious purposes, and because Lauren’s counterpart Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the world. whole, picking up his finds for the US military. He wants baku in particular because he thinks it could be used to erase “counterculture dreams” and end left-wing protests for good. Lauren ends up chasing the baku right in front of him, with the help of gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), their aging idealistic patron Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and untrustworthy mercenary Gustav (Peter Stormare).
what Cryptozoo try to do? The film is nominally an adventure story, with shootouts, brawls, cryptid slaughter against cryptids, and a quest that ends badly for a large number of humans and creatures. But it also has a strong anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian tendency that extends not only to the military-industrial complex, but more generally to humanity’s relationship with animals in general. When Phoebe first sees the soon-to-open Cryptozoo, the sanctuary where Joan is home to dozens of oddities, some with human intelligence, the Gorgon is deeply disappointed. She points out that it looks more like a mall than a refuge. And it is – it’s packed with mall stores and carnival shows, with Lauren bragging about selling toys inspired by every confirmed cryptid. The garish zoo may not be his ideal form of protection, but it is necessary, she says – he has to earn money to support himself.
While the Cryptozoo itself is built around this compromise between idealism and practicality, Joan is a type of purebred pie in the sky whose worldview revolves around love. She has a passionate supportive relationship with one of her cryptids, and she is convinced that the world’s problems can be solved with more of these kinds of connections. But she and her conservative colleagues can benefit more than the cryptids. The film ultimately suggests that trying to contain them is doing them a disservice. Shaw recognizes Lauren’s heroism in standing up to predators who see every creature and person around them in terms of profit. But even she comes under heavy criticism from Nick, who feels she does the job for both her own peace of mind and the raw thrill.
The quote that says it all: “We can only greet the strange and the unusual with love. And if we show them love, they will return the love. And love will spread and envelop all beings in our diverse and wonderful world.
Does he succeed? CryptozooThe moral of can seem blurry in the midst of all the action and incident, which feels more focused on communicating the widely varied personalities and goals of its characters than finding a common ground between them. This leaves the narrative more realistic than the average adventure story, but also messier and more prone to distractions, like a subplot around Phoebe’s impending wedding that doesn’t amount to much. The Cryptid Protectors are not a unified or even targeted group, they are a handful of temporary allies who don’t fully agree on methodology or purpose except when the going gets serious.
The pace also varies considerably – the woody opening romance feels like a no-rush news, with Matthew naked atop Cryptozoo’s tall fence like a beautiful dreamy image in a long streak of them. But a clash between Lauren and Nick over a Russian bird-woman hybrid called alkonost is more like an episode of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Belloq rushing to grab the idol after Indy did all the hard work. The film oscillates between action and dream logic, and between espousing high ideals and watching people suffer as they try and fail to implement them. It’s certainly a cynical story – Shaw’s script has little faith in his heroes’ ability to save the day, or in their good intentions to try.
What does this bring us? A little like All my high school Sinking into the sea, or for that matter like any good art brut, Cryptozoo ends as a window into a decidedly non-commercial spirit and a form of storytelling that isn’t the practiced and polished committee effort that comes out of animation houses like Disney and DreamWorks. It is rare to see American entertainment intended only and specifically for adults, but Cryptozoo is visibly focused on an arthouse audience – not only because of the child-hostile sexual and violent content, but because of the philosophical focus and complicated shifts in point of view of the entire project.
And after generations of increasingly worked and visually elaborate films of these outlets and others imitating them, the rough hand-drawing feel of projects like Cryptozoo can be shocking. It would be easy to call it ugly, but it is more correct to call it idiosyncratic. Admittedly, the visuals deserve a much closer examination, to see where the textures of the paints and pencils give the images a rougher and more specific feel, or where the passages from one style to another – like the difference between them. The raw contours of Lauren’s face and the fine-lined detail of Phoebe’s snake hair – give the protagonists an even more visual character.
Sometimes the movement of the character in Cryptozoo is reminiscent of the wayang puppets of Indonesia, with stiff figures moving widely around the joints. Some footage takes on a whole different style, like the magnificent light show put on at one point by a series of sentient light creatures. Nothing about where the story is going or how it will get there stylistically can be taken for granted. This is one of the greatest joys of Shaw’s plans – the feeling that something new and different is happening, from that anti-capitalist, anti-conformist and anti-containment bent that stretches throughout history and also extends to all aspects of the film’s aesthetic.
The most memorable moment: Cryptozoo is full of surprising moments and weird visuals that the Creative Members could certainly repurpose, but perhaps the most obvious come when Phoebe’s snakes bite people. The victims are not only poisoned, their flesh revolts and deforms, fills Akira. The image is a good setup for an “Oh no, the consequences of my own actions!” Style meme.
When can we see it? Cryptozoo is now widely available for rental or digital purchase through streaming platforms like Amazon and Vudu.