Adult animation in America is always a bit of a toss-up. Transcendent art pieces like Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow trilogy are often drowned out by cruder work like Sausage Party. Cryptozoo forges a new path ahead. Writer/creative director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Sambroski’s film is something wholly unique from any other animated film I’ve seen.
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Cryptozoo combines a bizarre animation style with a sense of blockbuster scope. It’s a gamble in a subgenre of gambles, but for me, it worked like a charm. The titular Cryptozoo refers to a sanctuary for cryptids. A cryptid, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an animal that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist”. Think Bigfoot, Mothman, etc. One of the main protectors of this sanctuary is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell). Lauren is the kind of no-nonsense, tough-as-nails genre archetype you expect to see as the lead of an action film. Her mission to find the Baku, a dream-eating cryptid who, if to fall into the wrong hands, could spell doom for all of humanity.
The world of Cryptozoo is a true original, visually. The character designs for the humans are akin to something you’d see on Adult Swim. Almost intentionally ugly, they stand in stark contrast to the cryptids, who each have their own unique looks. You can’t really describe Jane Sambroski’s aesthetic for the film without seeing it. The closest I can come is calling it a whirlwind of magazine clippings mixed with an early storyboard. Its chaos is deeply impressionistic; a look that shouldn’t work but somehow has a raw beauty about it.
The story Cryptozoo tells within this world, at first glance, is rather straightforward. To find the Baku, Lauren must team up with the Medusa-like cryptid Phoebe (Angeliki Papouila) in a narrative that resembles hard-boiled detective fiction. For Pete’s sake, there’s even a scene where they go into a cryptid-infested strip club, and the film opens in media res with a cryptid-perpetrated murder. It’s under the surface, by playing into the buddy cop angle, that Cryptozoo finds its substance.
Lauren and Phoebe, although both ostensibly fighting for the same thing, have vastly different views on the plight of the cryptids. Lauren thinks she’s noble, but Phoebe is unsure of where the Cryptozoo should even exist. Furthermore, she struggles with her own identity as a cryptid and what the relationship should even be between humans and cryptids. From their relationship comes a complicated reckoning with environmentalism. Shaw draws a clear parallel between the treatment of animals in modern society and that of the fantastical creatures. Therefore one could say Cryptozoo is really about the lack of understanding between humans and nature.
The conflict comes to a head in a physical way with an explosive third act that, for all intents and purposes, is Jurassic Park for weirdos. It’s popcorn movie mayhem, through and through. The team saved the best for last with its vast array of strange creatures, fighting the human villains in fascinating, often gory ways. Moreover, they manage to tie all the storylines together, paying off all the set-ups and sticking the landing with its themes. It’s a Herculean feat that is only accomplished consistently with movies of this scale by the likes of James Cameron.
Magnolia recently purchased Cryptozoo, and I applaud them for it. It’s got a little something for everyone. Unique aesthetics. Genre storytelling. Set-pieces. Environmental themes. Existential themes. A whizz-bang finale. Or, it could be that you’re simply looking for “Jurassic Park for weirdos”. That’s certainly enough of a sell for me. –James Preston Poole
Cryptozoo is still pending a wide release date. For continued Sundance 2021 Coverage keep an eye on our Twitter page and this site!