Sundance Review: Hand-drawn fantasy adventure ‘Cryptozoo’ soaks you in psychedelia
The best way I can think to describe My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea cartoonist Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo, the product of years of work and collaboration with animation director Jane Samborski, is “What if Indiana Jones was drawn like a storybook and painted on the side of a minivan in the late ‘70s?” It’s difficult to pin down, and frustrating to absorb if you’re not in the right state of mind (or, perhaps, altered by illicit substances). And yet, for its shagginess as a story, the animation style is unlike anything we’ve seen before, demanding attention even as you lose the plot.
We’re first thrust into the counterculture-fueled world of Cryptozoo through the lens of a hippie couple (voiced by Michael Cera at his most hirsute and Louisa Krause) who’ve secreted away to the forest to make love, stare at the stars, and dream of a better tomorrow. But they find themselves climbing a fence and running afoul of, of all, things, a unicorn.
Shocking, elemental horror ensues, and suddenly we switch perspectives to learn we’re in the Cryptozoo, a commercialized sanctuary for cryptids (i.e. mythological creatures like fauns, will-o’-the-wisps, and griffins) to keep them safe from the harsh, uncaring outside world. Founded by a wealthy matriarch (Grace Zabriskie), it offers both a home for embattled cryptids and (thanks to corporate sponsorship) a Jurassic Park-like tourist hub for folks curious to see the rarest creatures in the world.
Running the place is Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), an impassioned cryptid finder who scours the world looking for rare creatures with the help of a gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia, Dogtooth), hoping to find them before they’re scooped up by military cryptid hunter Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), the Belloq to Lauren’s Indy. Their latest quest is to find the baku, a creature for Japanese mythology that consumes your nightmares. The search to find it may end up tearing the Cryptozoo apart.
While the story itself touches on ideas of free will, the ethics of keeping creatures in captivity, even ostensibly for their own good, and so on, it’s clear the real appeal of Cryptozoo is in its psychedelic visuals, which sit somewhere between Yellow Submarine and René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. They’re endearingly choppy and textured, characters moving through the world with a charmingly low-frame-rate stutter that paradoxically lends them further weight. Characters are drawn with great care, with all the grace and imperfections that come with Shaw and Samborski’s line-drawn aesthetic. They’re messy and loud and colors clash with wild abandon, but all that clutter combines into something that’s impossible to look away from.
The voice performances serve the story well, even as some deliveries border on the half-lidded and deadpan. Bell commits wholeheartedly to Lauren’s single-minded pursuits, while Papoulia lends surprising pathos to Phoebe’s particular plight (as a gorgon, she has to sedate the snakes on her head to pretend others, especially her fiance, from turning to stone).
The scope of the film is ambitious for its style, too, growing from the muted character dramas of Lauren and Phoebe to a third act that’s non-stop, blockbuster-level action as impressively drawn as it is chaotically bonkers. Blood is spilled, animals are shot and killed, and yes, characters indeed hang dong. There’s a sense of extremity to the proceedings that befits the deceptively charming nature of the animation style — it may look somewhat like a high schooler’s sketchbook, but it works for the film’s confident clash of ideals.“Utopias never work out,” says Krause’s hippie early in Cryptozoo; the film, from its bold animation style to its deeply sentimental script, is laser-focused on that idea, and the impossibility of avoiding the human foibles of anger, violence, and hate. But that devil-may-care creative freedom lends itself to the film’s ‘60s counterculture vibes, a save-the-trees message filtered through too many Spielberg blockbusters that circles around to winning thanks to the vivid animation. The beats of the story may be bog-standard familiar, but they’re just the vehicle by which to deliver this incredible animated experiment.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Johnny Dell’Angelo / Sundance Institute.