'Cryptozoo': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Cryptozoo
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Stoner heaven, though mileage will vary for others.

Dash Shaw's psychedelic second feature is a fantastical animated action thriller about the fight to save a utopian sanctuary for mythological creatures from a military plan to turn them into bio-weapons.

"If anyone's taking that gay horse, it's me," declares ruthless ex-military cryptid poacher Nicholas, while Lauren Gray, the heroic protector of mythological creatures in Cryptozoo, prepares to take off on a snowy white Pegasus with a mane and wings in pastel rainbow shades. That kind of droll humor was a constant in graphic novelist Dash Shaw's 2016 feature debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. His trippy new film is a somewhat less jokey odyssey, more thematically ambitious and visually elaborate, its kaleidoscopic images serving a story about the clash between countercultural idealism and the military-industrial complex.

Picked up for North America by Magnolia Pictures out of Sundance, where it won the NEXT section's Innovator Prize, this psychedelic paean to biodiversity and acceptance in a xenophobic world is alternately marvelous and messy. Its freewheeling storytelling often feels slapdash, its hippy-dippy earnestness a touch simplistic and its central allegory is lifted straight out of X-Men. But there's a nonstop fusillade of imagination at work here that commands attention, even when the balance of art-school inventiveness and child-like fantasy threatens to topple into chaos.

Writer-director Shaw traces his inspiration to The Centaurs, an unfinished 1921 work by early American animation innovator Winsor McCay, as well as an all-women Dungeons & Dragons group run by his wife, Jane Samborski, who serves as animation director on this five-year project. Shaw also acknowledges the lineage of Japanimation cyberpunk favorite Akira and experimental French sci-fi Fantastic Planet, though the collage here of pencil drawings, wash paintings, traditional cel animation and computer articulated kinetic dreamscapes evokes everything from Yellow Submarine through vintage Ralph Bakshi to Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal.

The prologue has beardy hipster Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera) and geek-cool girlfriend Amber (Louisa Krause) getting stoned and having wild sex under the stars in the woods outside San Francisco in the late '60s. He has a dream (eyebrow-raising, given recent events) of thousands of people storming the Capitol to rebuild the perfect society where everyone is equal, while she observes with quiet foreboding that utopias never work out.

Still buzzed and naked in the afterglow, they go exploring and find a massive fence, which Matt scrambles over, spotting a castle ("It's like the home of Walt Disney!"). Amber is wary of weapons labs, chemicals or test sites, but she follows anyway, just in time to share his awe at the sight of a unicorn in a glade that transforms the frame from monochromatic tones to full storybook color. "There is magic here," whispers Matt, before tripping and freaking out the gentle creature, causing a double tragedy.

One of many lovely screen wipes and a dreamy cue in John Carroll Kirby's shape-shifting electronic score segue to main title graphics that establish the film's suspension between ancient mythology and spacey acid trip. The protagonist, Lauren (Lake Bell), recalls her childhood as a military brat in Okinawa, where her nightmares were soothed by a baku, a Japanese supernatural being that sucks up dreams, allowing her to sleep. Drawn like a strong-jawed Pre-Raphaelite Lara Croft, the adult Lauren now dedicates her life to rescuing these cryptids from black-market traders.

The baku is imagined as an orange pig-like creature with the trunk of a baby elephant and tendrils of blue fleece that float off into the air. She's one of countless rare beasts drawn from multicultural folkloric origins. All of them are being collected in the sanctuary of the title, into which Matt and Amber stumbled while it was still under construction. It's funded by wealthy philanthropist Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who lives in a tower on the grounds and nurtures a utopian vision of interspecies harmony: "If we show them love, then they will return love."

When the baku goes missing, Joan sends Lauren to track the creature, assigning Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) to help. Phoebe is a humanoid gorgon who has to keep her snaky Medusa hair covered to avoid turning people to stone. Her travels with Lauren prompt ideological exchanges about whether keeping cryptids in an amusement park replete with carnival rides and cute merchandise will diminish human fear and breed tolerance, or whether the best they can hope for is being gawked at like circus freaks. Lauren believes the Cryptozoo is a stepping stone toward integration.

Their quest to find the baku takes them from Orlando, Florida (where the Epcot Center is being built), to a sleazy Kentucky strip club and a tarot reader (Zoe Kazan), whose respect for the hidden world makes her an ally. But when Lauren and Phoebe return with the baku to the Cryptozoo, they are trailed by Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Gustav (Peter Stormare), a mercenary faun who plays his pan flute at orgies.

Nick wants to sell the cryptids to the U.S. military as bio-weapons, the most important of them being the baku; his plan is to have her vacuum up the peacenik dreams of the counterculture movement to allow warmongering capitalism to flourish. "Without dreams, there can be no future," says Lauren, which might just as easily be Shaw's mantra.

The resulting violent conflict, during which the blood-soaked, still-naked Amber also resurfaces, to some degree counters its shortage of storytelling discipline with the giddy spectacle of its magical menagerie in action, swept along by percussive bursts of excitement in Kirby's score.

Griffins, manticores and chimeras get loose, along with dragon-hybrid tarasques, a gigantic Amerindian camoodi serpent, dryads and krakens, Japanese bird-man tengus and Polish trickster sprites that pelt rocks for kicks. A crucial part of the plan to help the cryptids escape is the luz mala, Latin American will-o'-the-wisps whose orbs of light can change color at will, carrying mesmerizing Pied Piper properties.

The escalating mayhem drags on a bit, with the wham-kapow action often more juvenile than effective, and the environmentalist message that wild creatures are better off free is too obvious to provide much payoff. Shaw's forte is not creating an emotional connection to his characters, meaning the sad loss of one of the principal figures doesn't resonate. But audiences in the right state of mind will groove to the beauty of the lovingly hand-crafted patchwork backgrounds and delight in the liberation of fantastical entities lurking in the shadows of our world. On a visual level alone, Cryptozoo is a hallucinogenic original.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Fit Via Fi Films, Electric Chinoland, Low Sparks Films, in association with Washington Square Films
Distribution: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie, Emily Davis, Irene Muscara, Rajesh Parameswaran, Joce Soubiran
Director-screenwriter: Dash Shaw
Producers: Kyle Martin, Jane Samborski, Bill Way, Tyler Davidson
Executive producers: Gail Flanigan, Dexter Braf, Drew Sykes
Animation director: Jane Samborski

Lead animation: Emily Wolver
Music: John Carroll Kirby
Editors: Lance Edmands, Alex Abrahams
Sales: UTA, Match Factory

95 minutes