[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.]
Logline: In a world secretly filled with legendary monsters, three girls try and spherical up the surviving bizarre creatures and get them to a sanctuary the place individuals can respect them in peace. A army bounty hunter has extra brutal plans for the world’s cryptids.
Longerline: Sprint Shaw, the comics artist and indie animator behind 2016’s enjoyably weird My Total Excessive College Sinking Into the Sea, returns with Cryptozoo, which is equally stilted, wild, and unpredictable. Opening on a dreamy intercourse scene, the place companions Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) get bare within the woods at evening and dream about a perfect hippie way forward for world peace and equality, the movie takes a grotesquely bloody flip nearly instantly. They stay in an unpleasant world that doesn’t respect excessive beliefs and groovy vibes. Cryptid-hunter Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) actually is aware of it: ever since childhood, when a dream-eating Japanese creature known as a baku rid her of nightmares, Lauren has been attempting to guard cryptids from seize, exploitation, and slaughter.
It’s a tough job, each as a result of the locals in websites around the globe are inclined to seize cryptids for nefarious functions, and since Lauren’s reverse quantity Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the globe, scooping up her finds for the U.S. army. He desires the baku specifically as a result of he believes it might be used to erase “the goals of the counterculture,” and finish left-wing protests for good. Lauren winds up chasing the baku simply forward of him, with the assistance of the gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), their ageing idealist patron Joan (Grace Zabriskie), and the untrustworthy mercenary faun Gustav (Peter Stormare).
What’s Cryptozoo attempting to do? The movie is nominally an journey story, full with gunfights, fistfights, cryptid-on-cryptid slaughter, and a quest that ends badly for an terrible lot of people and creatures. Nevertheless it additionally has a powerful anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian streak that extends not simply to the military-industrial complicated, however extra typically to humanity’s relationship with animals usually. When Phoebe first sees the soon-to-open Cryptozoo, the sanctuary the place Joan is housing dozens of oddities, some with human intelligence, the gorgon is deeply disenchanted. She factors out that it appears extra like a shopping center than a refuge. And it does — it’s filled with strip-mall shops and carnival sideshows, with Lauren boasting that they promote toys modeled after each confirmed cryptid. The garish zoo is probably not her preferrred type of safety, nevertheless it’s crucial, she says — it has to earn cash to help itself.
Whereas the Cryptozoo itself is constructed round that compromise between idealism and practicality, Joan is a purebred pie-in-the-sky kind whose worldview revolves round love. She’s in a supportive, passionate relationship with one among her cryptids, and she or he’s satisfied that the world’s issues may be solved with extra of those sorts of connections. However she and her fellow preservationists could also be benefitting greater than the cryptids. The movie finally means that attempting to comprise them isn’t doing them any favors. Shaw acknowledges Lauren’s heroism in standing as much as the predators who see each creature and individual round them when it comes to revenue. However even she is available in for harsh criticism from Nick, who feels she’s doing the work each for her personal peace of thoughts, and for the uncooked thrill.
The quote that claims all of it: “We will solely greet the unusual and strange with love. And if we present them love, they’ll return love. And love will unfold and envelope all of the beings on our various, wondrous world.”
Does it get there? Cryptozoo’s morals can really feel hazy amid all of the motion and incident, which feels extra targeted on speaking its characters’ broadly various personalities and targets than to find a commonality between them. That leaves the narrative feeling extra lifelike than the typical journey story, but additionally messier and extra liable to distractions, like a subplot round Phoebe’s impending marriage that doesn’t quantity to a lot. The cryptid-protectors aren’t a unified and even targeted group, they’re a handful of non permanent allies who don’t absolutely agree on methodology or function, besides when the scenario will get severe.
The pacing additionally varies broadly — the opening woodsy idyll appears like an unrushed brief story, with Matthew poised bare atop the excessive Cryptozoo fence as only one beautiful dream-image in a protracted sequence of them. However a conflict between Lauren and Nick over a Russian bird-woman hybrid known as an alkonost feels extra like an episode out of Raiders of the Misplaced Ark, full with Belloq swooping in to seize the idol after Indy does all of the laborious work. The movie strikes backwards and forwards between motion and dream-logic, and between espousing excessive beliefs and watching individuals endure as they attempt to fail to enact them. It’s actually a cynical story — Shaw’s script has little religion both in his heroes’ capacity to save lots of the day, or of their good intentions in attempting.
What does that get us? Very like My Total Excessive College Sinking Into the Sea, or for that matter like several good outsider artwork, Cryptozoo winds up as a window right into a decidedly uncommercial thoughts, and a type of storytelling that isn’t the practiced, polished committee effort that comes out of animation homes like Disney and DreamWorks. It’s uncommon to see American animation aimed solely and particularly at adults, however Cryptozoo is noticeably targeted on an arthouse viewers — not simply because of the kid-unfriendly sexual and violent content material right here, however because of the complete undertaking’s philosophical bent and complex point-of-view shifts.
And after generations of more and more processed and visually elaborate movies from these retailers and others imitating them, the tough hand-drawn really feel of initiatives like Cryptozoo may be surprising. It’d be simple to name it ugly, nevertheless it’s extra correct to name it idiosyncratic. Actually the visuals bear a lot nearer examination, to see the place the textures of paints and pencils give the photographs a rougher and extra particular really feel, or the place shifts from one fashion to a different — just like the distinction between the uncooked contours of Lauren’s face and the fine-lined element of Phoebe’s snake-hair — give the protagonists much more visible character.
At occasions, the character motion in Cryptozoo recollects Indonesia’s wayang puppetry, with inflexible figures shifting largely across the joints. Some sequences veer into a very totally different fashion, like the gorgeous mild present placed on at one level by a sequence of sentient light-creatures. Nothing about the place the story goes or the way it’ll get there stylistically may be taken as a right. That’s one of many largest joys of Shaw’s initiatives — the sense of one thing new and totally different taking place, of that anti-capitalist, anti-conformist, anti-containment bent that stretches all through the story additionally extending into each facet of the movie’s aesthetics.
Probably the most meme-able second: Cryptozoo is stuffed with startling moments and oddball visuals that inventive memers might actually repurpose, however perhaps the obvious ones come when Phoebe’s head-snakes chunk individuals. The victims aren’t simply poisoned, their flesh revolts and distorts, going full Akira. The picture is an efficient setup for an “Oh no, the implications of my very own actions!”-style meme.