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Sundance 2021 Review: Cryptozoo – “Innovative and original”

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.

Where to start with Cryptozoo except to say that you definitely haven’t seen anything like it.  Its inclusion in Sundance’s NEXT program, which celebrates innovative and forward-thinking filmmaking is certainly appropriate.  The film, created by Writer-Director Dash Shaw and animated by Animation Director Jane Samborski, is an independent, feature length, hand drawn animation meant for adults.  It’s also laden with surrealism, idealism and a healthy dose of feminism.  It’s hard to define Cryptozoo, a film whose meaning for an audience may have even changed a bit since its inception five long years ago.

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A cryptid is an animal whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated.  These include creatures like a griffin, centaur, mermaid, kraken or phoenix.  For a young Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), it was a childhood encounter with a mythical creature called a Baku (a mythical Japanese being that feeds off of nightmares) that leads her to begin protecting cryptids.  Now an adult, she’s gone to veterinary school, but instead of spending her days with dogs and cats, she instead spends them freeing cryptids from black market trade and miserable imprisonment.

Instead, she takes the creatures she saves to the Cryptozoo, a ‘sanctuary’ run by Joan (Grace Zabriskie).  Lauren sees the place as a way to bridge the fear of the unknown humans have towards cryptids, though the zoo is still exactly that – a zoo Joan has created based on profitability.  When they get word that the Baku is actually in danger of being held captive by the U.S. government for weaponization, Lauren and her Medusa-like companion Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) head off to rescue it and bring it back to the Cryptozoo before its too late.

Cryptozoo, whether intentional or not, has a notable political edge.  In fact at the beginning one character has a dream about storming the capitol.  Again this film was conceptualized five years ago, and in fact Michael Cera, whose character recounts this dream, recorded his part four years ago.  In the film, people are rising up against the government to create an idealistic society (it takes place in the 1960’s after all) but parallels to recent events can’t helped but be thought about.

But there are many themes that circle around the main idea as to whether cryptids and humans can peacefully co-exist.  Environmentalism is also front and centre here, for if we continue down the path of habitat destruction, our current zoos may in fact become ‘cryptozoos’ full of extinct mythical creatures that used to roam our Earth.  Yet again, the debate about zoos and their conservation efforts contextualized against the backdrop of animal confinement is also something that Lauren’s character directly struggles with.  There’s a lot to unpack here.

The animation itself is bright and vibrant, but also violent and, at times, provocative.  Within the first fifteen minutes there is full frontal nudity and a whole lot of blood.  There’s also one character who just remains naked for the entire film (someone give her some clothes please!).  The slow frame rate which makes the animation look a little ‘choppy’ is a style that can take some getting used to.  Where Shaw does excel is in creating this dynamic, detailed world that his animated characters live in.  Though for someone who did gather a good cast of comedy actors like Cera, Bell and Jason Schwartzman the director never really uses their comedic talents in their voice-over delivery.

I will always marvel at the talent some people have to create such a visual spectacle and Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski have created just that.  Cryptozoo is innovative and original and for those that are fans of such avant-garde animation this one is for you.  This movie will be divisive.  There is an audience that will appreciate this film for the strange, imaginative creation it is, but unfortunately I am not part of that audience.  In the end, it just wasn’t for me.

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