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‘Cryptozoo’, a new animated film by writer-director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski, is a story of cryptids and cryptid-enthusiasts. What are cryptids, you may ask? A cryptid is a creature whose existence has not been substantiated by science–think Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or the chupacabra. The fact that the existence of these creatures has not been proven but can also not be definitively disproved is essential to their appeal. For some, the idea of mythological beasts roaming the world among us in secret generates feelings of wonder; for others, feelings of fear.
In ‘Cryptozoo’, the existence of cryptids has certainly been substantiated, to the extent that there’s a zoo full of them. The film has one of the most diverse menageries outside of the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ series, bringing in mythological creatures from cultures all around the world. There are familiar creatures like the unicorn and the kraken, as well as less well-known beings like the Luz Mala, a collection of ghostly lights from Latin American folklore.
The film’s hero is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a woman who suffered from nightmares as a small child until a fateful encounter with a Baku, a cryptid from Japanese mythology that eats nightmares and looks like a small elephant. Years later, Lauren has devoted herself to protecting the cryptids of the world by interning them in the zoo she believes will keep them safe. One is reminded of the Indiana Jones quote, “It belongs in a museum!” Lauren combines the ideological stubbornness of Indy with the tenacity of Lara Croft. She works best alone, preferring the company of the lucky catchpole she used to catch her first cryptid.
Cryptid/Human Sexual Relations
Lauren is informed by her employer Joan (Grace Zabriskie) that the Baku has resurfaced and is being pursued by the U.S. government, which intends to use it to zap the dreams of revolution from the brains of the Anti-war counterculture (the film is set in the Vietnam War era). The race to find the Baku brings Lauren into conflict with old rival Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a ruthless mercenary. Lauren is teamed up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a Medusa-like humanoid cryptid (she’s a Gorgon, she insistently reminds us). As the mystery of the Baku deepens, the film takes on a noirish tone, weaving in and out of seedy bars and tarot parlors.
‘Cryptozoo’ is a film brimming with curiosity, rarely settling for too long on one idea. It is at times fascinating, at times confounding, but always original. Its characters are given to philosophical pondering, discussing topics like environmentalism, commercialism, feminism, and utopian society. The film is surprisingly prickly in its confrontations of complicated issues. As run by Lauren’s employer Joan, the cryptozoo is a mythological equivalent of Jurassic Park, and we all know how that exercise in human hubris turned out. This film complicates the ethical quandary of keeping creatures in cages further by revealing that Joan has ‘tamed’ one of the humanoid cryptids in her care and has begun a sexual relationship with it. It’s quite strange–imagine if John Hammond was sleeping with one of his velociraptors. The filmmakers get points for the progressive move of giving an elderly character an active sex life, but the narrative strongly suggests that the root of Joan’s cryptid activism may be in the fetishization of cryptid/human sexual relations.
A More Philosophical ‘X-Men’
‘Cryptozoo’ has a distinctly retro vibe, its animation style, and overall sensibility a throwback to the work of artists like Ralph Bakshi (‘Wizards’) and René Laloux (‘Fantastic Planet’). It’s interesting to think that when those films were made, they were cutting edge, and now a film paying tribute to them is old-fashioned. At its best, ‘Cryptozoo’ uses its fondness for the 1960s to actively dialogue with which ideas from that era are worth keeping and which are antiquated. In those moments, the film is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’, a series of spirited conversations amplified by trippy visuals. Sometimes, the film feels more like a curiosity piece for die-hard enthusiasts of a bygone era. This is especially true in regards to the film’s treatment of nudity, which at moments borders on voyeuristic (one character spends so much time undressed that I started wondering why no one had offered her a jacket).
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Moments driven by the humanoid cryptid Phoebe are the film’s most intellectually stimulating. As a Gorgon, Phoebe has snakes instead of hair and eyes that can turn humans into stone, but she tranquilizes her snakes, wears a wig, and puts in contacts so that she can pass for human. She plans to get married and start a family with her human boyfriend, but she gets uncomfortable when Joan gets overly excited about the prospect of ‘half-cryptid/half-human babies’. She is also ambivalent about the nature of the cryptozoo itself, with its hundred-foot high fences and its carnival-style prize booths and concession stands. The conversation here about how cryptids should fit into the world is similar to the one hashed out in the X-Men series, with characters like Phoebe choosing to protect other cryptids while others, like the satyr Gustaf (Peter Stormare), are willing to sell out and help hostile forces in the name of self-preservation. Like the X-Men, the cryptids can be seen as a metaphor for groups oppressed on the basis of religion or race.
‘Storming the Capitol’
The film does buckle a bit under the weight of all its themes. Thankfully, it is constantly buoyed by mesmerizing kaleidoscopic animation sequences and a meditative soul-pop score from Frank Ocean collaborator John Carroll Kirby. Perhaps it’s to the credit of the filmmakers that they resist making a definitive political statement in these polarizing times. In a scene that is most likely destined to go down as the film’s legacy, a pair of hippies go into the woods to smoke a joint and have sex. The man, Matthew (Michael Cera), is an optimist, insisting that nothing natural can hurt you.
The woman, Amber (Louisa Krause), reminds him that actually, the natural world is constantly out to kill. He then recalls a dream in which he and thousands of other hippies ‘storm the Capitol’ in order to bring about a utopian society. ‘Cryptozoo’ has been in production for five years, and of course, there’s no way the filmmakers could have anticipated the events of January 6, but it does raise an interesting point: the protestors who stormed the Capitol believed they were doing the right thing. How often do human beings do things with good intentions only to realize how wrong they were? In the words of Amber, “Utopias never work out.”
‘Cryptozoo’ is currently playing as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival Lineup.
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