Dash Shaw’s “Cryptozoo” is like “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends” on acid and capitalism. Premiering as one of the only feature-length animated films at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, this movie is a hand-drawn dive into the world of cartoons meant primarily for adults. This film won the festival’s NEXT Innovator Award, and “innovative” is definitely one of many ways to describe the fever dream that is “Cryptozoo.”
“Cryptozoo” follows an ensemble of characters and their encounters with “cryptids,” or animals assumed to be mythical. The story’s creatures and humanoids — griffins, a real Medusa, Dobby-esque trolls — are ostracized from society, forced to live out their days in a special zoo that faces a threat of military takeover.
The skilled animation holds a distinctive pen-mark look, appearing overwhelmingly 2D in sketched lines as if the film was ripped out of someone’s notebook. Only when the story’s mood shifts or a new character is introduced are viewers greeted by more corporeal figures, which are extra vibrant in color and shading. The title screen and much of the animation feels influenced by 1960s psychedelic bubbliness, enhancing the unsettling factor as the plot grows darker.
It’s often hard to tell who the intended audience is when quirky mythical creatures and mature subject matter bleed together in a narrative. In “Cryptozoo,” an intimate sex scene and occasional graphic violence work to make sure you know that this is not necessarily meant for children. In the film’s opening, Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matt (Michael Cera) lie around the forest completely nude, leaving nothing to the imagination, except for the minimalist setting drawn bare to keep the focus on the characters.
After the couple discovers a towering chain-link fence haphazardly placed in their weird naked camping spot, things go unexpectedly haywire. Amber’s character is built in the model of Diane Nguyen from “Bojack Horseman” — suddenly facing horrifying tragedy as her romantic night away goes awry. Our main character, however, is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), who owns the titular zoo and strives to create a safe, calm space for the cryptids after her positive childhood encounters with a Baku.
The film explores themes of utopia and the economics of charity in a way that functions best as animation. Much of the absurdity and imagination would have been lost if the monsters were born of visual effects and viewers weren’t introduced to the settings as nowherelands (although we are told the film takes place in San Francisco — it’s just hard to imagine that zoo would fit in Golden Gate Park).
“Cryptozoo” approaches nuanced conversations about fences, social capital and exploitation through trippy, frequently swapping animation styles. It’s hard to tell what the two different color tones signify in the script, but the overall takeaway is that the military should never have dragons or sea monsters at its disposal. And with militant intruders such as the cryptid-hunting Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) adding loud, politically incorrect sentiments to an otherwise hopeful cast of characters, audiences are presented with clashing attitudes about how to treat those you may not relate to or understand.
A positive standout scene, though, reveals a gorgeous look into a tarot reading; movements as subtle as cards flipping over make for impressive works of animation. And set to a mystical, ‘70s-recalling score, let’s just say this film could be really something with a little special ingredient in your brownies.
It’s hard to finish the film and not have the gripping line of “Maybe one day we can feel safe anywhere in the world — not just in a zoo” stuck in your head. “Cryptozoo” is strange, but it’s definitely something you’ve probably never seen before — unless you did a lot of drugs in the ‘70s. It’s not perfect, but, as Amber says, “Utopias never work out.”