[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 stuffed with legendary monsters, three girls try to spherical up the surviving bizarre creatures and get them to a sanctuary the place individuals can recognize them in peace. A navy 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 Complete 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 night time and dream about a perfect hippie way forward for world peace and equality, the movie takes a grotesquely bloody flip nearly instantly. They dwell in an unpleasant world that doesn’t respect excessive beliefs and groovy vibes. Cryptid-hunter Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) definitely is aware of it: ever since childhood, when a dream-eating Japanese creature referred to as a baku rid her of nightmares, Lauren has been making an attempt 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. navy. He desires the baku particularly as a result of he believes it could possibly be used to erase “the desires 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 getting old idealist patron Joan (Grace Zabriskie), and the untrustworthy mercenary faun Gustav (Peter Stormare).
What’s Cryptozoo making an attempt 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. However it additionally has a powerful anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian streak that extends not simply to the military-industrial advanced, however extra typically to humanity’s relationship with animals normally. 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 dissatisfied. She factors out that it seems to be extra like a shopping center than a refuge. And it does — it’s stuffed 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 ultimate type of safety, however it’s vital, she says — it has to earn cash to assist 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 certainly one of her cryptids, and he or she’s satisfied that the world’s issues could 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 making an attempt to include them isn’t doing them any favors. Shaw acknowledges Lauren’s heroism in standing as much as the predators who see each creature and particular person 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 are going to 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 centered on speaking its characters’ broadly various personalities and targets than to find a commonality between them. That leaves the narrative feeling extra life like than the common journey story, but in addition 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 centered group, they’re a handful of short-term allies who don’t totally agree on methodology or objective, besides when the state of affairs will get severe.
The pacing additionally varies broadly — the opening woodsy idyll appears like an unrushed quick 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 referred to 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 arduous work. The movie strikes forwards and backwards between motion and dream-logic, and between espousing excessive beliefs and watching individuals undergo as they try to fail to enact them. It’s definitely a cynical story — Shaw’s script has little religion both in his heroes’ skill to save lots of the day, or of their good intentions in making an attempt.
What does that get us? Very similar to My Complete Excessive College Sinking Into the Sea, or for that matter like all 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 centered on an arthouse viewers — not simply as a result of kid-unfriendly sexual and violent content material right here, however as a result of total 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 could be surprising. It’d be straightforward to name it ugly, however 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 type 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 instances, the character motion in Cryptozoo recollects Indonesia’s wayang puppetry, with inflexible figures shifting largely across the joints. Some sequences veer into a totally completely different type, like the gorgeous gentle present placed on at one level by a collection of sentient light-creatures. Nothing about the place the story goes or the way it’ll get there stylistically could be taken as a right. That’s one of many largest joys of Shaw’s initiatives — the sense of one thing new and completely 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 definitely repurpose, however possibly 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 results of my very own actions!”-style meme.
When can we see it? Cryptozoo is now broadly obtainable for digital rental or buy through streaming platforms like Amazon and Vudu.