“Utopias never work out.”
The visually stunning new animated film “Cryptozoo,” which opened nationwide and on demand Friday, (including for a weekend-long run at the newly reopened for in-person screenings PMA Films), makes a strikingly beautiful case against paradise. At least against those utopias fashioned by human beings, who, as the film posits pretty convincingly, are often the real monsters lurking in the dark.
And that’s in a world populated by krakens, minotaurs, giant serpents and pretty much every mythological creature the cultures of the world ever dreamed up. (Here, I apologize to the true believers of Portland’s International Cryptozoology Museum – keep on looking for that tricky Bigfoot, gang.)
The film, made by Dash Shaw and artistic and real-life partner animator Jane Samborski (“My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea”), is itself a fable, although a more grounded and sobering one. At least as grounded and sobering as a tale including a dream-eating Japanese elephant creature called a baku and an orgy-loving satyr voiced by Peter Stormare (of “Fargo” fame) can be.
It’s the push and pull between writer-director Shaw’s script and animation director Samborski’s efforts that both entrances and distances us from the story. Shaw’s script is assembled like a high-concept action movie, with the badass, cryptid-loving heroine, Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell) – who harbors fond memories of meeting the aforementioned nightmare-devouring baku as a child – hustling all over the world to protect mythical creatures of all stripes. And she’s kept busy, as Shaw’s plot extends the “Watchmen” template of “what if superheroes existed in the real world” to include everything from mischievous Polish gremlins to South American will o’ the wisps to what Grey somberly tells us are the very last unicorn and pegasus in existence.
In this late-1960s America, Grey’s goal is to retrieve as many scattered and elusive mythical monsters, rehousing them in her wealthy mentor Joan’s titular “cryptozoo,” where they’ll be safe from the predations of a Nixon-era U.S. government. Possessed of their own expert cryptid hunter, Nick (“Henry Fool’s” Thomas Jay Ryan), the government is, naturally, all about hunting down these magical beasts to harness their extraordinary powers for military purposes, especially the baku, whose ability to remove people’s dreams he sees as instrumental in sucking the life out of the counterculture.
It’s a set-up I could see powering any number of middling CGI fantasy films and, honestly, that’s most of what “Cryptozoo” would be if not for animator Samborski’s efforts. Awash in visual contrasts, the film’s palette mixes as many idiosyncratic animation styles and tricks as there are creatures in Joan’s sprawling, EPCOT-like theme park. The bold slabs of stylized color recall “Yellow Submarine’s” hippie psychedelia, while the matter-of-fact eroticism comes straight from the 1973 French animated fable “Fantastic Planet.” There are Terry Gilliam cutouts, and central characters rendered as pencil and watercolor sketch work, all pulsing with a dreamy yet precise sensibility. It’s an expressionistic visual feast that, tied to Shaw’s action beats and the impressive voice cast’s deadpan deliveries, makes for something untiringly odd. Even as the film’s story and messages play out a little prosaically.
“Cryptozoo” does deconstruct the black-and-white morality seemingly hardwired into its dreamers-versus-warmongers story. While Nick and his soldiers are undeniably thuggish in their quest to twist the world’s magic into weaponry, the film is truly about its heroine realizing that penning in magic – even with the best of human intentions – is equally destructive. There’s more than a little “Jurassic Park” in the inevitable fall of the cryptozoo, with Grey’s protestations that humanity’s acceptance of otherness must come with tourist-friendly merchandising and patronizing “protection” falling on the skeptical ears of her snake-headed gorgon sidekick, whose quest for assimilation sees her donning a wig and contact lenses. Indeed, the film opens with an unexpectedly bloody setup straight from a horror movie, as a pair of hippie lovers stumble across the cryptozoo’s high walls while looking for a place to make love. Both their playful eroticism and the shocking violence of their discovery over the wall see the film announce its adult tone, and its themes of the inherent violence of colonization.
If there’s a knock I have on “Cryptozoo,” it’s that Shaw grafts his magical world onto a straightforward genre narrative I’ve seen before. (Think TVs “Grimm” and the Maine-set “Once Upon a Time,” along with Netflix’s misbegotten “Bright.”) Still, there’s a tendency for indie animated fables to get lost in their own aesthetic, and I did appreciate that, for all its weirdness, “Cryptozoo” clearly defines its world’s rules, and then plays by them. Still, befitting a film extolling imagination, the most effective and affecting moments in “Cryptozoo” come when there’s a poetry and ambiguity to the nibbling around the fringes.
Apart from the overtly villainous military types, the film’s characters are most compelling when confronting their own blind spots and preconceptions. The young lover from the opening – who commits an act as unthinkable as it is predictable – trails her guilt through the film (along with the bloody token of her crime). When some panicked soldiers ask her at gunpoint if she, unlike the myriad creatures in the ruined zoo, is human, her anguished “Yes!” is heartbreakingly eloquent. And heiress philanthropist Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie of “Twin Peaks”) holds onto her dream of protectively walling off the world’s wonders to the tragic end, never recognizing that her undeniable love for her charges (including the Bigfoot-like beast she takes to her bed) stems from a paternalism at odds with her lofty goals.
In the end, the monsters of “Cryptozoo” must, inevitably, return to the myths that birthed them, their ineffable and mysterious existences released back into legend, and myth, and the corners of our eye. The film’s mythmaking is, itself, perhaps less mysterious for being turned into a (genuinely entertaining) action-fantasy film, but its fleeting glimpses of the dark and complicated enigmas of the human heart make for a strange, often mesmerizing experience in moviegoing.
“Cryptozoo” can be streamed everywhere. For venues, tickets and more information, check out the film’s website. “Cryptozoo” runs 93 minutes and is rated R for nudity, violence, and general trippiness.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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