Review: Cryptozoo

Director: Dash Shaw

Stars: Zoe Kazan, Lake Bell, Angeliki Papoulia

In the hand-drawn fantasia of Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo, mythical animals, chimeras and bestial hybrids – Cryptids – exist, gathered by humans to the titular sanctuary in the American MidWest; a kind of amusement park that creates revenue to help rescue more of these precious beings. With a sensibility similar to that found in Bojack Horseman, many of these creatures live in society, but here they hide their nature for fear of persecution. They are intelligent, emotional, and powerful.

Set in 1967 amid the florid psychedelia of a sexual and psychotropic revolution, we’re introduced to a wide range of counter-culture types, bohemians, environmentalists and hippies, all trying to keep the US government from exploiting Cryptids for their military potential. Lake Bell voices ex-military activist Lauren Gray, who is searching for a missing Cryptid – the Baku; a dream-eater – thought to be the most powerful of all. Accompanied by a gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), Lauren butts up against the army in her quest to keep the Baku safe from harm.

A seeming non-sequitor opening featuring a pair of naturist hippies vaulting the Cryptozoo fence and encountering a unicorn sets out a lot of the movie’s stall. In a beautiful mix of hand-drawn elements, watercolours and rotoscoping, we’re presented a miniature tale of man’s tragic hubris (with voice work from Michael Cera and Louisa Krause), before the film’s title card redirects us to the adventures of Lauren. In this opening we’re shown that this is an animated film for grown-ups exclusively. Nudity, drug-use and blood-letting unveils an adult’s-only menagerie, more Terry Gilliam than Adult Swim.

And yet… and yet Cryptozoo feels more modern than either of these perhaps obvious touchstones. As much as it is set more than 50 years ago, the sensibility is very much of our times, with strong themes of preservation and rebellion that resonate with a generation facing climate change and widespread political corruption.  As we struggle against the impossible odds of these tribulations, Cryptozoo offers us an hallucinogenic fantasy of super-beings that might help eschew in a brighter future. While dreamlike imagery of ‘storming the capital’ and references to getting past the ‘pigs’ inadvertently rings as prescient for the USA’s very recent domestic unrest.

The narrative has an unapologetic leftist worldview and, further, embraces spiritualism,  tarot, peace and love. Plenty of ideals to divide a wide audience. For the cynical, this acid trip odyssey for harmony might read as rather cloying, but its not so far removed from the populist comic book fantasies (and messages) of X-Men.

Here, being a gorgon or a centaur functions as an active allegory for any ostracised minority. You might view it as a rather vivid representation of the plight of the trans community, for instance. Unique and powerful individuals are demonised for their perceived ‘otherness’ while allies fight for their inclusion. And while Cryptozoo will likely find champions for this reading, it also wades into problematic waters, reducing its protected species to zoo attractions for profit (acknowledging this as a necessary evil with a resigned shrug). Also, there’s an insinuation that, in order to function in our heroes’ idealistic society, these animalistic creatures need some level of taming, while a select few remain fearfully unruly.

In terms of presentation, there’s precious little to criticise. Cryptozoo is one of the year’s most giving visual pleasures. Drawings and designs are imaginative and beautiful, and the blending of disparate artistic styles and elements is seamless; a collage effect that works because of its collectivism. So form and content resonate well together.

As Louisa Krause’s Amber acknowledges while climbing the Cryptozoo fence, most utopias fail. Even if we achieve our fantasies, is there any hope of permanence? As in life, there are complexities to the questions – and solutions – suggested throughout. Is captivity for the sake of preservation truly humane? Can we escape our fascination with the strange to truly normalise the fantastic? Should we? Cryptozoo argues, instead, that we should create space for the fantastic to be fantastic, and to stand in admiration of such vivid colours.

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