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‘Cryptozoo’ Review (Sundance): A psychedelic fantasia of mystical beasts and hand-drawn ingenuity

Far from the tonally familiar confines of a Pixar or DreamWorks effort, Dash Shaw instead crafts an adult story with surreal style.
Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

Molding a bevy of influences into a work so singularly bizarre that you swear you’d imagined the whole thing once it’s over, Dash Shaw’s “Cryptozoo” – a hand-drawn fantasia of sex, fantasy-tinged espionage and counterculture revolution – is the kind of effort that gently taps expectations of animation being solely for children on the shoulder before setting it ablaze, gathering the ashes and rocketing the remains into space. And you wouldn’t catch it flinching in the process.

Beginning with a prolonged cold open that acts as its own semi-self-contained short story about two nude hippies – simple animations of white pencil strokes against the surrounding dark of night – who take a post-coital venture through the woods and stumble upon a fenced-in Garden of Eden where the frame suddenly bursts into technicolor paint swatches, “Cryptozoo” announces itself early as not just pitched toward adults but constantly striving to stay just outside the parameters of expectation. Case in point: Right as our young lovers are admiring a unicorn roaming around the wondrous enclosure, it thrusts its horn into the man’s torso, and is promptly stoned to death by his girlfriend. The movie acknowledges a scant few degrees of separation between what awes us and what horrifies us, and it nestles itself at home in that space, daring to be prodded.

“Cryptozoo” – whose imagination-rooted ecopolitics make “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” seem like an elementary school play – bares its teeth early and often, which can distract from the particulars of the plot. And there is a plot here, amid the movie’s ambitions to be what I can only assume is an uncanny substitution for taking mind-numbingly strong hallucinogens (side effects here include dropped jaws, wide eyes and verbal “WTFs”). It centers on cryptids, misunderstood creatures of mythical design (griffins, chimeras, krakens, oh my!) who reside in various corners of the earth out of sight from those who would harm them, or worse: Use them as military bioweapons.

Enter Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a hybrid Professor X/Indiana Jones heroine who has made it her life’s mission to gather cryptids at the titular massive sanctuary. The film is at its most imaginative when it takes a breath and guides us through it in a stunningly memorable sequence, the various furry, scaly, clawed and beaked residents expanding the film’s capacity for the visually surreal with every step. By the end of it, even Pliny, a headless humanoid manchild whose face is protruding from his stomach, seems a bit on the ordinary side.

There’s a complexity to Lauren’s egalitarian drive that Shaw’s etch-a-sketch screenplay makes evident but refrains from totally fleshing out; a visit to a fortune-teller stands out as a rare scene that prioritizes character above aesthetic, deepening Lauren’s psychology but refraining from meaningful interrogation (“Do you think some things are meant to stay hidden?” “But that’s how they get lost.”). More urgently, Bell’s wonderfully understated voice performance anchors the only other element bursting in more abundance than the kaleidoscopically colorful compositions, and that’s Shaw’s bulletproof sincerity. If there’s any hint throughout “Cryptozoo’s” 95 minutes as to Shaw’s disbelief that a narrative that includes a scheming faun playing pan flute music as an orgy unfolds around him could be a vehicle for commenting on the military-industrial complex, it isn’t easy to spot. At full thrust, the story centers on Lauren teaming up with a contacts-wearing gorgon to find the world’s last Baku, a nightmare-sucking blue pig-elephant hybrid, before a villainous military commander does first. At stake is nothing less than quite literally our ability to dream a better future. For however didactic “Cryptozoo” is as an allegory about the struggle between fighting for what’s right and for what’s easy, Shaw nevertheless ensnares us in the conflict. Perhaps timing is on his side. Hell, we’re all dreaming of a better 2021 than 2020, right?

In truth, Shaw’s sensibilities are fueled by the sociopolitical contexts of a certain time period, only it’s the clenched-fist optimism of the 1960s. Sure, it’s evident in the way his visual tableaus occasionally melt into hypnotizing tie-dyes and groovy geometric mazes, but that era’s values also shade Lauren’s unencumbered efforts as a pseudo-activist; the (rather unexplored) suggestion that our natures shouldn’t dictate our roles; a thematic atmosphere rich in the possibility of out-there discovery; and a chaotic finale of destruction that strikes a strangely moving note of apocalyptic poetry, as if there was no other way for things to turn out for the cryptozoo denizens.

That overlong climactic showstopper shows Shaw and his artistic team delicately laying colorful waste to the world we’ve gotten to know, and it’s the kind of sequence (or series of sequences) that drives home the sadness of not being able to watch “Cryptozoo” on the big screen as Sundance goes virtual this year. The bravura visuals are decidedly deserving of a more original ending than what we get, and yet there’s a biblical scale to some of those images that resonate all the more when you pause to consider the exorbitant levels of dedication and care that went into crafting them—and when you pause to consider how one of the most unique animated films of recent years blossomed from an initial pencil stroke that we can maybe spot if we look close enough.

Starring: Lake Bell, Angeliki Papoulia, Louisa Krause, Michael Cera

Directed by Dash Shaw

2021

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