Cryptozoo just may be the most ambitious and imaginative work to be shared at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This kaleidoscopic feature-length animated film for adults opens with two hippies (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) frolicking through a dreamy forest before indulging themselves in a bit of hallucinogens and promptly screwing each other’s brains out. They eventually stumble upon a fantastically enormous fence, scale it, and come face to face with a live unicorn. What follows is a pair of shockingly graphic bits of violence. Oh, and the two characters are completely nude throughout all of this.
If that highly stylized introduction doesn’t have you rolling your eyes too much at its immediate provocativeness, you’ll find yourself rewarded. The film quickly pivots and reveals itself to be a globe-trotting, action-adventure flick set in an original fantasy world that (of course) very much resembles our own. Those turned off by Cryptozoo’s initial eccentricities will be missing out on a legitimate fantasy epic of sorts, one that tackles themes such as environmentalism, the conservation of species, and the futility of attempting to control what we can never fully understand. Yes, that may sound like a bit too much gravitas, but the film’s action, pop colors, and sprinkles of humor keep things fun as opposed to severe.
The aforementioned unicorn is an inhabitant of a large facility dubbed the ‘Cryptozoo’, a place of refuge (or captivity, depending on who you ask) for all of the various mythological creatures of the world. It’s the lifelong ambition of wealthy entrepreneur Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who in her old age has passed the responsibility down to her protégé, Lauren Gray (Lake Bell). Lauren – an interesting cross between Indiana Jones, Ellie Sattler, Steve Irwin, and Lara Croft – has dedicated her life to the rescue and protection of the mythical cryptids, who are continuously rounded up and sold through black markets. Lauren believes she owes the cryptids due to the time an especially endangered one called a Baku took away her bad dreams as a child and allowed her to sleep. In what is surely a new record in heavy-handedness, she learns that the U.S. military has plans to use the Baku as a way to “suck the dreams out of the counterculture” and thus quell unrest and ensure complacency. Wow.
Thankfully, the other political and ecological contemplations made by writer and director Dash Shaw have a bit more nuance to them, aside from a very poorly-timed bit where a character dreams of “storming the Capitol and taking on the pigs”. When Lauren enlists the help of a Gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) and brings her to the Cryptozoo, she’s not afraid to show her disdain for the place and liken it to a shopping mall. Despite its commercialized, Disney’s Animal Kingdom-esque appearance, Lauren defends it, deeming it “progressive”. If the zoo is to sustain itself, it has to make revenue after all. But Phoebe, one of the few humanoid cryptids, wants the outside world to accept them, and she’s not so sure that the zoo is the best way to go about doing that.
Is it even a zoo? Questions on what exactly is best for the cryptids and whether humans can even supply that, as well as why humans are the ones making these decisions in the first place, can be found throughout all of Cryptozoo’s Spielbergian journey. Is it a carnival? A holding pen? A sanctuary? Or a mere stepping stone towards real progress? The facility is Joan’s utopian dream, but the film suggests that utopias are inherently flawed themselves; doomed to fail under the weight of their own hubris and need for control. These are certainly lofty ideas, and not all of them can fully pan out – the choice for the cryptids to serve as a stand-in for both endangered species and marginalized people makes the metaphor and the storytelling a bit murky – but the ambition and mindset behind them is undoubtedly impressive, as is the mind-boggling intricacy of the film’s animation led by Jane Smaborski.
Cryptozoo’s biggest strength is its imagination, which takes full advantage of the limitless of animation to go outside the lines with its creature designs, stage elaborate scenes of fantasy action (do you want to see a griffin take on a helicopter or what?), and offer a new look to a medium that’s become oversaturated with CalArts style Disney imitators. Even so, many of the film’s characters feel a bit thin, and despite its exciting concept, some of the plotting veers into clichés. Still, the sheer scope and ambition of something like this can’t be overstated. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before and likely won’t see again – an aspiring, harsh, playful, and fantastical adventure interested in how to move towards interspecies justice.