Hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation is a sadly dying artform. As the expectancy for glossy, 3D CG animated films grows more and more with each passing year, it’s something of a rarity to find anyone partaking in animation of the older style. So it’s to this end that I have to applaud writer-director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski for their vivid, imaginative, and decidedly picture book-esque visual style for the new film Cryptozoo, which premiered as part of Sundance 2021’s NEXT section. They should receive accolades for this approach to storytelling for grown-ups. But I couldn’t wait for the movie to end.
Cryptozoo is Shaw’s follow-up to the similarly styled 2016 film My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, which was embraced by the indie scene. Cryptozoo‘s aspirations are much loftier. It explores animal cruelty and exploiting the wonder of nature in relation to a sanctuary for cryptids, or unexplained, mythological creatures. It’s a really cool idea, but what ultimately sank it for me was that it seemingly had only one avenue to explore and instead indulged in excessive animated violence to prove that point.
Lake Bell voices Lauren, a woman who has spent her life searching for a Baku. It’s a mythological dream-eating cryptic she encounters as a child. She works for the titular Cryptozoo, a massive sanctuary-cum-theme park for these beings. Some, like manticores and chimeras, are animal-like in nature; others like gorgons and satyrs can “pass” for human given proper clothing and disguises. The gorgon in question here is Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a new recruit to help search for cryptids. The satyr (Peter Stormare) used to work for the Cryptozoo but has thrown in with black marketeers.
For the first chunk of the film, we follow Lauren and Phoebe as they search for the Baku, with the US military and mercenaries on their heels. It’s here that the movie feels like any action-thriller about heroes and villains both acting outside the law to retrieve something for the betterment of whomever they’ve decided needs them. For Lauren, she believes she’s saving these special beings from destruction and castigation. To Phoebe, the Cryptozoo seems like exploitation, that the cryptids are circus attractions for wealthy, souvenir-buying families. And the government, of course, wants them for weaponization.
But too quickly, the narrative takes all parties back to the Cryptozoo where the vile military agents begin wholesale murdering the cryptids who are just acting in self-defense. I’m aware the point is for us to not like what we see; that exploiting the natural world is bad. But this felt like a mythological animal version of The Passion of the Christ. Just death after death, maiming after maiming. I was praying the movie would end with each passing minute, but it didn’t. Eight-five minutes seemed way too long.
I’m sure there are people with stronger constitutions who might get more out of Cryptozoo, but that wasn’t me. I kept waiting for there to be more to the story, and while the visuals continued to dazzle in their semi-Ralph Bakshi-ish way, I just wanted everything to be over. And when it did, it felt more like a shrug than a relief.
2 out of 5