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Cryptozoo (Sundance Review): A Kaleidoscopic Adventure in Animation


Cryptozoo is a watercolor acid trip, mystifying and amusing in its look at humans’ relationship to nature.

Animated films are usually reserved for children, but what follows is in no way a kid’s movie. Directors Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski invite you to Cryptozoo, a fantastical world containing a collection of entities from various cultures and myths. It is a Spielberg-esque adventure only as bold as its meticulously hand-drawn animation. On the surface, everything is based purely on fiction. However, it is not far from reality, displaying many ongoing world problems such as animal cruelty. With ambitions that aren’t ideally executed, there is a message that still be decrypted from its several allegories and themes. Even if the story doesn’t always hold your attention, the film is backed by majestic animation that surely won’t have a problem doing so, even in sudden graphic moments of sexuality or violence. Cryptozoo will have no trouble piquing interest because, no matter how strange or bewildering it dares to be, it is an enjoyable enough ride.

It’s the 1960s, and Lauren Grey has devoted her life to rescuing cryptids, mythological beings from legends, myths, folklore, you name it. Endangered and commonly trafficked, Lauren sees to it that they are brought to the sanctuary known as Cryptozoo, which is run by the matriarch Joan, who shares Lauren’s objectives. To advocates like Lauren and Joan, these creatures are “unloved animals of the world” that they wish to protect from the dangers of humans with other intentions. They both obtain a lead towards finding the great Baku, a cryptid that (literally) feeds on nightmares. But hunter Nicholas is also on the trail, and he is also determined to capture the Baku for weaponized use. Lauren is paired with cryptid Phoebe, a Medusa-like figure seeking to live a normal human life, and they both set off find the Baku. To Phoebe, who sees Cryptozoo as nothing more than an amusement park, the quest to protect cryptids is personal. And while Lauren may also act out of the good of her heart, she is forced to question the moral principles behind keeping these entities confined in a park instead of back to their natural habitats.

A still from Cryptozoo by Dash Shaw
A still from Cryptozoo by Dash Shaw, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Johnny Dell’Angelo.

The question that Cryptozoo raises is straightforward: what role do humans play towards nature? Both Lauren and Joan work towards a utopic haven for these animals and legends, but their vision never takes into account what cryptids want for themselves. Lauren says it best herself when she difficulty explains that “maybe we need them more than they need us.”

The human vs nature trope is visible in the story, but the story itself has some room for development. Shaw and Samborski use basic narrative tools, never fully exploring the characters with strong arcs that tie in with the themes. Lauren does not have a major backstory, other than a briefly mentioned military past, that properly explains her drive for protecting cryptids. Phoebe may be a gorgon, generally seen as terrifying creatures, but she only wishs to life a normal life, married to a human being. This is something we are only given a glimpse of. The film is also very confronting with its content, and not always in a positive light. Sometimes these graphic scenes, such as a centaur’s passionate orgy or Joan getting it on with a sasquatch, can feel grotesque, as if the film wasn’t peculiar enough already. The decision to preserve this shameless absurdity could have at least been excused if it were supported by a fully fleshed out story and characters.

Instead, what holds Cryptozoo together is the animated world we are introduced to. It doesn’t take mythology 101 to appreciate the beauty of these legends. We get to see Phoebe in action, using her abilities to turn goons into stone before shattering them, or my personal favorite, a kraken awakening from the deep to attack intruders in the park. Lauren also gets to ride a Pegasus, a horse with wings, across a battlefield, adding more spectacle to the drawings. It is electrifying to see all these figures painted in the vivid colors and style that cartoonist Shaw has. Both Shaw and Samborski fill in the lack of a complex story with a strong cinematic presentation, making the film better as an experience rather than an enlightening work of art. And in a way, Cryptozoo can be seen as a win for adult animation, for if the story isn’t transcendent by any means, the visuals without a doubt are.

Cryptozoo: Official Trailer (Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing)

Cryptozoo premiered online, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, on Friday, January 29, 2021. The film is now available to watch in the US, and will be released on MUBI in the UK and select countries on October 22, 2021.

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