In Cryptozoo, an explosion of life and a menagerie of visual styles, writer/director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski realize their dreamworld in stunning detail. Set in the 1960s, Cryptozoo‘s kaleidoscopic and colorful hand-drawn animation takes heavy inspiration from psychedelia. The animation is intensely, almost excessively intricate, an assault on the senses that leaves the viewers ready to revolt with it.
When Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) get lost in the woods, they find their way to the cryptozoo, a sanctuary for endangered mythical beasts from worldwide folklore, and have an ill-fated encounter with a unicorn – a terrifying scene of man battling beast. But the true protagonist is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), the cryptozookeeper and fearless advocate for cryptids everywhere. Gray has been dedicated to her conservational aims since her childhood, when a mythical baku saved her from a nightmarish existence. From griffins to unicorns to will o’ the wisps and beyond, the creatures are feared by the outside world, maligned and misunderstood, and Gray is determined to shepherd them to safety. Eventually Amber and Lauren’s stories intertwine, and Lauren is confronted with the classic question of whether it is ethical to display these beautiful beasts in captivity, or allow them to roam free in the world of secrecy and stay hidden. Lauren finds it is her “duty” to be the human rescuer and protector of cryptids, but the film raises the question, what does protection actually mean?
The strange and surreal images let the story maintain a childlike naivete throughout, even in the tale’s harshest elements of commodified, exploited magic and wonder. The zoo often feels more like a zany amusement park than a sanctuary, but it’s about as anti-Disney as an animated film can get. While this is a simple moral tale with an anti-capitalist and conservationist message, the story’s various diversions add personal significance as Lauren searches for the baku along with her monstrous sidekicks. Cryptozoo is deeply indebted in its themes and visual style to Fantastic Planet, and is not always pleasant or pretty to look at.
Yet despite the overwhelming aesthetic loading each frame with extensive sensory information, it fails to leave the emotional impact intended. The menagerie of creatures and the free-wheeling fantasy of the plot are certainly imaginative, but the thematic messaging does not match the originality of the visuals. The free-spirited activist protagonists claim that the government wants to harness the power of the baku to wipe out the dreams of the counterculture, but we never really get to see what those dreams are, or appreciate the wonder that these mythical creatures inspire in those who encounter them. Instead, the action gets increasingly gruesome, as we are forced to bear witness to the endless suffering of the cryptids and maiming after maiming at the hands of the government.
Cryptozoo stretches on for a bit longer than its psychedelic fervor can withstand, and the narrative somehow still gets boring and emotionally hollow despite the tesselating visuals. It is often difficult to watch, though much of that difficulty is likely intentional as viewers are forced to watch the horrors capitalist demands unleash. Cryptozoo has immense energy and originality in its artistic style, and is certainly a cool countercultural adventure; yet it leaves the viewer wishing its artistic breadth was matched with the same level of emotional depth.