Cryptozoo review: The rare animated movie that’s strictly for adults

Polygon’s home entertainment group is visited for the 2021 Sundance Movie Celebration, which has actually gone virtual for the very first time ever. Here’s what you require to learn about the indie gems that will quickly make their method to streaming services, theaters, and the cinematic zeitgeist.

Logline: In a world privately loaded with legendary beasts, 3 females effort to assemble the enduring unusual animals and get them to a sanctuary where individuals can value them in peace. A military fugitive hunter has more harsh prepare for the trio.

Longerline: Dash Shaw, the comics artist and indie animator behind 2016’s enjoyably strange My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, returns with Cryptozoo, which is likewise stilted, wild, and unforeseeable. Opening on a dreamy sex scene, where partners Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) get naked in the woods in the evening and dream about a perfect hippie future of world peace and equality, the movie takes a grotesquely bloody turn nearly right away. They reside in an unsightly world that doesn’t regard high perfects and groovy vibes. Cryptid-hunter Lauren Grey (Lake Bell) definitely understands it: since youth, when a dream-eating Japanese animal called a baku rid her of problems, Lauren has actually been attempting to secure cryptids from capture, exploitation, and massacre.

It’s a tough job, both since the residents in websites around the globe tend to record cryptids for wicked functions, and since Lauren’s opposite number Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the globe, scooping up her finds for the U.S. armed force. He desires the baku in specific since he thinks it might be utilized to eliminate “the dreams of the counterculture,” and end left-wing demonstrations for great. Lauren end up chasing after the baku simply ahead of him, with the assistance of the hag Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), their aging idealist customer Joan (Grace Zabriskie), and the unreliable mercenary faun Gustav (Peter Stormare).

A naked woman in the woods, spattered in blood, in Cryptozoo

Image: Sundance Institute

What’s Cryptozoo attempting to do? The movie is nominally an experience story, total with gunfights, fistfights, cryptid-on-cryptid massacre, and a mission that ends terribly for a dreadful great deal of people and animals. However it likewise has a strong anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian streak that extends not simply to the military-industrial complex, however more usually to mankind’s relationship with animals in basic. When Phoebe first sees the soon-to-open Cryptozoo, the sanctuary where Joan is housing dozens of oddities, some with human intelligence, the gorgon is deeply disappointed. She points out that it looks more like a shopping mall than a refuge. And it does — it’s full of strip-mall stores and carnival sideshows, with Lauren boasting that they sell toys modeled after every confirmed cryptid. The garish zoo may not be her ideal form of protection, but it’s necessary, she says — it has to earn money to support itself.

While the Cryptozoo itself is built around that compromise between idealism and practicality, Joan is a purebred pie-in-the-sky type whose worldview revolves around love. She’s in a supportive, passionate relationship with one of her cryptids, and she’s convinced that the world’s problems can be solved with more of these kinds of connections. But she and her fellow preservationists may be benefitting more than the cryptids. The film eventually suggests that trying to contain them isn’t doing them any favors. Shaw acknowledges Lauren’s heroism in standing up to the predators who see every creature and person around them in terms of profit. But even she comes in for harsh criticism from Nick, who feels she’s doing the work both for her own peace of mind, and for the raw thrill.

The quote that says it all: “We can only greet the strange and unusual with love. And if we show them love, they will return love. And love will spread and envelope all the beings on our diverse, wondrous world.”

A wounded woman in a green cloak and goggles lies in the rain as her rival stands over her in Cryptozoo

Image: Sundance Institute

Does it get there? Cryptozoo’s morals can feel hazy amid all the action and incident, which feels more focused on communicating its characters’ widely varying personalities and goals than in finding a commonality between them. That leaves the narrative feeling more realistic than the average adventure story, but likewise messier and more prone to distractions, like a subplot around Phoebe’s impending marriage that doesn’t amount to much. The cryptid-protectors aren’t a unified or even focused group, they’re a handful of temporary allies that don’t fully agree on methodology or purpose, except when the situation gets series.

The pacing also varies widely — the opening woodsy idyll feels like an unrushed short story, with Matthew poised naked atop the high Cryptozoo fence as simply one lovely dream-image in a long sequence of them. But a clash between Lauren and Nick over a Russian bird-woman hybrid called an alkonost feels more like an episode out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with Belloq swooping in to grab the idol after Indy does all the hard work. The film moves back and forth between action and dream-logic, and between espousing high ideals and watching people suffer as they try and fail to enact them. It’s certainly a cynical story — Shaw’s script has little faith either in his heroes’ ability to save the day, or in their good intentions in trying.

What does that get us? Much like My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, or for that matter like any good outsider art, Cryptozoo winds up as a window into a decidedly uncommercial mind, and a form of storytelling that isn’t the practiced, polished committee effort that comes out of animation houses like Disney and DreamWorks. It’s rare to see American animation aimed solely and specifically at adults, however Cryptozoo is noticeably focused on an arthouse audience — not just due to the kid-unfriendly sexual and violent content here, however due to the entire project’s philosophical bent and complicated point-of-view shifts.

And after generations of increasingly processed and visually elaborate films from those outlets and others imitating them, the rough hand-drawn feel of projects like Cryptozoo can be shocking. It’d be easy to call it ugly, but it’s more accurate to call it idiosyncratic. Certainly the visuals bear much closer examination, to see where the textures of paints and pencils give the images a rougher and more specific feel, or where shifts from one style to another — like the difference in between the raw contours of Lauren’s face and the fine-lined detail of Phoebe’s snake-hair — give the protagonists even more visual character.

At times, the character movement in Cryptozoo recalls Indonesia’s wayang puppetry, with rigid figures moving largely around the joints. Some sequences veer into a completely different style, like the beautiful light show put on at one point by a series of sentient light-creatures. Nothing about where the story is going or how it’ll get there stylistically can be taken for granted. That’s among the biggest joys of Shaw’s projects — the sense of something new and different happening, of that anti-capitalist, anti-conformist, anti-containment bent that stretches throughout the story also extending into every aspect of the movie’s aesthetics.

The most meme-able moment: Cryptozoo is full of startling moments and oddball visuals that creative memers could certainly repurpose, however maybe the most obvious ones come when Phoebe’s head-snakes bite people. The victims aren’t simply poisoned, their flesh revolts and distorts, going full Akira. The image is a great setup for an “Oh no, the consequences of my own actions!”-design meme.

When can we see it? Cryptozoo is looking for circulation.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.