Cryptozoo is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.
When it comes to American animation, it seems the vast majority of the offerings for adults are found in TV comedies, often relying on crude humor and graphic, over-the-top violence. Director Dash Shaw is one of a few autonomous animators pushing the boundaries of the medium in the feature format. His latest film, Cryptozoo, is a gory, graphic, experimental, psychedelic adventure that can best be described as the love child of Fantastic Planet and Jurassic Park, who was then raised by Yellow Submarine. It’s one of the most unique animated movies you’ll see this year, even if it gets too ambitious for its own good at times.
Cryptozoo is set in the 1960s, in a world where mythical creatures, referred to as cryptids, exist all around. They need to be protected from humans, but they can also cause a ton of pain and destruction. The first scene serves as the film’s thesis, as we see a blazed-up hippie couple (voiced by Louisa Krause and Michael Cera) discussing how efforts to storm the Capitol to remake society would be in vain, because “utopias never work.” As they move along, their disregard for warning signs and giant fences leads to a gory death-by-unicorn.
Shaw fills Cryptozoo with dozens upon dozens of different creatures, all based on mythologies from all around the world. From krakens and hydras, to Japanese bakus and griffins, to Russian sirins and South American luces malas, Cryptozoo recreates the sense of awe and wonder of watching Jurassic Park for the first time, each creature being drawn and animated with a different art style to reflect the culture it stems from. At the center of this mythical menagerie is Lauren (a perfectly cast Lake Bell), a Lara Croft-like badass who has dedicated her life to rescuing cryptids and is now on a race against the clock to find the baku (an elephant-like being that devours nightmares) she met as a kid before the army uses it as a weapon to destroy the counterculture movement.
Lauren’s goal is to bring the baku and other cryptids to Cryptozoo, a “sanctuary” that also operates as a theme park, together with rides, cafes, and tons of merch shops where the humanoid cryptids and human staffers sell toy versions of every creature in the zoo to human tourists. According to Lauren, this is a utopia where cryptids and humans work and live together, and the merchandise is just a small compromise meant to keep the sanctuary financially afloat. At least, that’s what she tells her new partner Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a gorgon who has to wear cosmetic contact lenses, tranquilize her snakes, and cover them with a scarf in order to hide among humans. Phoebe isn’t so easily persuaded, though, and she thinks Cryptozoo is more of a shopping mall than an actual refuge, a place where cryptids will still be seen as exotic, strange beasts and prevent them from fully integrating into society.
It doesn’t take long for Cryptozoo to reveal its not-so-subtle critique of Disney and how theme parks turn fairytales into mass-produced commercial products. We even see EPCOT center being built in the background in one scene, a nod to Walt Disney’s original plans for Disney World to be a utopian company town where people would live and work before it got turned into just another commercial amusement park. It is to the film’s merit that it explores the ramifications of both sides of the argument, cynically exploring Disney’s legacy of commercializing fairytales while graphically showing the dangers Lauren is trying to save the cryptids from.
Owing to the psychedelics of Fantastic Planet and Yellow Submarine, Cryptozoo is a visual wonder. Thin pencil lines and big backgrounds give it an almost surreal quality, while the color palette makes each location feel unique and full of rich detail as we move from the deep purple hues of a small, shady Kentucky town, to the icy cold Russian Arctic, to the orange sunsets of Florida.
Sadly, the movie is not without flaws. For one, it is overstuffed with ideas and subplots, including one about Phoebe’s upcoming marriage to a human, which is superficially introduced but never really explored. The same happens with the relationship between the old widow that founded the zoo and the cryptids she saves and keep her company. In trying to encompass a large world full of mythical creatures, each with a story of their own, Cryptozoo ends up lacking direction for most of its second act. Still, its bold visual style and stunning creature designs, as well as its fascinating anti-Disney message, carry us through to its exciting, gory conclusion.