CRYPTOZOO is a touching throwback to the animated films of the late 60s and early 70s in both style and in substance. Set in that time frame, it is full of idealism about the possibilities of human society and wonder at the natural world, while also tempered with poignant cynicism about both. Writer/director Dash Shaw employs a näif form of animation—flat spaces and unrefined character movements—tempered with psychedelia and a vivid imagination. It creates a suitably dreamlike atmosphere for cryptids and humans to reveal the nature of monstrosity and the limits of good intentions.
We begin with a shout-out to the Garden of Eden, within which Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) will shortly fall from grace, but not from the exuberant lovemaking in which they engage shortly after hiking deep into the forests of Northern California. No, it’s when, engulfed in a post-coital glow amplified with a controlled substance, the two scale a very tall fence, he in pursuit of possible magic and utopias, she grumbling that utopias never work out. They are both right, though their tragic encounter with the unicorn is just a preamble to the action.
Their climb landed them in Cryptozoo, a sanctuary not yet open to the public and envisioned by its founder, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), as a place to keep cryptids safe from the thriving black market that threatens them, and to educate the public about their existence in a way that will remove any fear of them. Some are more tamable that others. The kraken is not, the wild man Joan transported from China, on the other hand, has been civilized into smooth jazz and an appreciation for the written word.
Tasked with collecting the cryptids is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), whose fearlessness is matched only by her tenaciousness when it comes to keeping cryptids safe. When she is wounded during a mission, Joan forces her to team up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), an equally dedicated woman with a vivid backstory. They are tasked with saving a baku from the clutches of the military-industrial complex. The baku feeds on dreams, draining them from the dreamer, and the military is planning on weaponizing it to steal the dreams from the counter-culture with the hope that they will stop protesting and return to the conformity of previous decades.
The plot is linear, but the cryptids drawn from global mythology are fascinating. In addition, a trip to Florida brings us fauna native to the era: a male chauvinist pig, and a local flower child who reads Lauren’s tarot cards. They are minor, unlike Gustav (Peter Stormare), the faun with a history with Lauren and a penchant for facilitating orgies, and Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), the military agent with no regard for life, human or cryptid. As the story unfolds, the script turns philosophical, pondering what is truly best for the cryptids, and the unintended consequences of those ci-mentioned good intentions.
When it comes to those consequences, human nature comes in for quite a beating. Dash, though drawing his designated villain with the requisite broad strokes, employs both subtlety and compassion for everyone else. It makes for an engaging dialectic using an ersatz Socratic method to gently lead us into uncomfortable places, even as he fills the screen with fantastic creatures and wrenching violence.
Yet, for all CRYPTOZOO’s visual and thematic strengths, it fails on an emotional level, never quite compelling us to invest in these characters personal journeys as opposed to their ethical ones. It leaves us with an intriguing film, but not a gripping one.