SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Cryptozoo’ (2021) Believes in a World of Magic

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“A 95 minute break from normalcy, daring viewers to accept all that is strange and unique about the world and allow it to just be.”

Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo (2021) believes in a world of magic, a world of fantastical creatures that hide in the outskirts of society. It also believes in corruption, and the lengths to which humans would go to either manipulate, snuff out, or exploit magic and the creatures that harnessed it if they existed in our modern day society. Drawn in a unique, sketchy 2D style, Cryptozoo (2021), which premiered at Sundance late last month, immediately stands out from its mainstream counterparts in animation. For some viewers, its abrasive art style may be a bit off-putting compared to the more refined styles they’re used to seeing in the medium, but the film’s raw visuals only add to its mature themes and complex view of the world.

Stripped down to its most basic concept, Cryptozoo’s plot may seem reminiscent of some similar stories in the superhero genre. This is because, at its core, the film is a story of a marginalized group of creatures who harness great powers – powers that the majority of society either see as something to be feared or something to exploit. The military is cast as a major antagonist of this story, with the on-screen troop’s commander (portrayed by Thomas Jay Ryan) hellbent on utilizing the cryptids as weapons against foreign enemies. What makes Cryptozoo distinct from other films of the same ilk is its titular zoo concept, a supposed sanctuary for the cryptids where they can work and live with humans in an environment set up like a fair, advertising the idea of togetherness to the general population. It’s a seemingly altruistic business that aims to preserve and protect cryptids. It is also the workplace of the film’s two protagonists. Interestingly, however, the idea of the cryptozoo is also put under scrutiny by the narrative on numerous occasions, calling into question whether any attempt to “help” cryptids from outside forces is truly supportive.

To some degree, the film’s plot line is clearly working as a metaphor for real life marginalized groups of many kinds. Unfortunately, this equation to real life human beings can be occasionally tricky to reconcile with, as the cryptids can be both animalistic and humanoid in appearance and action, causing them to be treated as both endangered species and an overlooked group of “people” by the narrative.

In spite of a somewhat muddled metaphorical message, the film does a good job of providing varied perspectives in its cast of characters that really help to illustrate the different viewpoints of its constructed fantasy world. Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) is a human who had a positive encounter with a cryptid as a child and wants to repay its kindness by helping all cryptids. Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), meanwhile, is a cryptid herself – a gorgon who desperately wants to be accepted by society but is outwardly critical of the cryptozoo’s commercialism, initially stating that it “looks like a shopping mall.” Gustav (Peter Stormare), a faun character, takes those reservations about the cryptozoo further by choosing to live apart from the zoo and only help its staff when guilted into doing so. These different character types help to immediately immerse the viewers into the world of the film, with their backstories helping to flesh out how that world works in relation to our own.

The film’s raw art style can also be one of its major strengths. The cryptid designs in particular are often intricately detailed, visually setting them apart from what viewers would consider normal. A stand-out example of this is Mariko, a dream-eating cryptid called a Baku that helped Lauren in her youth, who the employees of the cryptozoo are racing to find and save before the military can get their hands on it. The cryptid is a small, elephant-like creature whose movements and facial features can express a lot of emotion. It’s cute in a somewhat unconventional way, and it’s not hard to see how someone would get attached to the point of putting their life on the line to protect it.

While it definitely has its issues, Cryptozoo’s creativity really shines, giving it an undeniable charm. Despite working with some familiar ideas and themes, the film is a completely unique endeavour, distinct in art and voice even from director Dash Shaw’s previous animated film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016). The film earns the “adult” signifier of its animation medium with both strong language and a handful of sexually explicit scenes. While the sex can often feel a bit unnecessary to the film’s story, neither aspect of the film ever feels too overbearing. In this sense, it provides a nice alternative for anyone looking to see more thematically complex adult animation from an American perspective. At its heart, Cryptozoo (2021), is a 95 minute break from normalcy, daring viewers to accept all that is strange and unique about the world and allow it to just be.

Dir: Dash Shaw

Wri: Dash Shaw

Prod: Dexter Braff, Tyler Davidson, Kyle Martin

Cast: Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan

Header Image Courtesy of CineReach.