You know a movie is gonna be good when a naked hippy is impaled by a unicorn in the cold open. It’s also a warning that what you’re about to see is not for kids. Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy feature from husband and wife team Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski. It’s the second feature from Shaw, the comic artist turned filmmaker, after My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea. Shaw wrote and directed Cryptozoo, and Samborski was in charge of the animation.
The story takes place in a world where cryptids (animals whose existence is disputed) are very much real, and are in serious danger. Activist Lauren Gray (voiced by the talented Lake Bell, Harley Quinn) travels the world in search of strange creatures, freeing them from black market dealers. She brings the cryptids to her sanctuary, where she keeps other beasts, called Cryptozoo. Mythological monsters from all over the world are divided into sections based on what continent they come from. Her and her team are preparing for the theme park’s grand opening, hoping to break down stigmas. But her grassroots efforts are powerless against her rival Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who is backed by the US army. Nicholas secretly follows Lauren on her missions, only to swoop in at the last minute to capture the cryptids for himself. He plants to weaponize the beasts for military use, unaware that he’s messing with untamed forces.
“…vibrant and dreamlike […] and the animators do not shy away from the gore.”
Lauren gets word that the Baku, a small elephant-like being that feeds on nightmares, has been spotted out in the wild. A creature with such abilities could be dangerous in the wrong hands, so Lauren tries to dig up whatever information she can to track it down. She is joined by Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia, Dogtooth), a young gorgon (like Medusa), who tries to hide her true identity. But as Lauren is distracted looking for the Baku, disaster strikes at the Cryptozoo, and, like Jurassic Park, the captive creatures escape from their cages.
Lauren believes she is the hero the cryptids need, but she is operating in a moral grey zone. She is still capturing these creatures and putting them on display in her zoo. Most of the cryptids appear cramped in their cages and enclosures, while others are put in glass cases and are expected to entertain guests. Lauren plans to fund the zoo with merchandise and concession sales, but from the outside looking in, the refuge looks more like a shopping mall. Phoebe has reservations about the Cryptozoo. She just wants a normal life; she tranquilizes the snakes in her hair and covers her head with a scarf. She wears contacts so she doesn’t turn every person she speaks to into stone, and she plans to get married to a human. She believes the Cryptozoo won’t change the public’s view of cryptids aside from making her kind look like sideshow attractions.
Another morally flawed character is Gustav (Peter Stormare, Constantine), a satyr (half-man, half-goat) who is willing to sell out his fellow cryptids to the black market or the military for a price, despite being rescued from black market dealers himself. It’s no coincidence that the cryptics who are able to speak have accents that differ from the typical Anglo-American; they are intended as stand-ins for the marginalized. Additionally, many of the human-hybrid cryptids are sexually active, but since their species are so few and far between, they often gravitate towards humans, which begs the question, what percentage of human qualities must a cryptid have so it’s not considered bestiality?
I hate to split hairs here but most of the beasts that appear in Cryptozoo aren’t exactly cryptids. They are more mythological, mostly from ancient Greece. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by Greek mythology, but I was expecting to see more modern cryptids like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra or the Loch Ness Monster. That being said, I loved Cryptozoo‘s 2-D animation. The characters and creatures are brought to life using pencil and paint on paper, set against these beautiful watercolor backgrounds. The styles vary based the origin of each cryptid, for example, the Baku looks like it was designed by Hokusai since it’s a creature from Japanese folklore. Because of its unique hand-drawn art style, the animation isn’t very fluid and is particularly disjointed during the action sequences, but your mind eventually adapts to it. But it excels during the slower parts when the animation is vibrant and dreamlike. It’s all very pretty to look at.
“The main appeal of Cryptozoo is its artistry, but its political themes will remain planted in your head […]”
As I mentioned above, this movie is intended for mature audiences. There is plenty of sex and full-frontal male nudity, a rare sight in cinema. Violence is a common language for both humans and beasts, and the animators do not shy away from the gore. A lot of cryptids are killed in cold blood, regardless if they are the last of their kind.
Shaw attempts to fit in as much story as he can into Cryptozoo, but a few subplots go unfulfilled or unexplained. For example, I didn’t fully understand why people are having dreams of storming the Capitol (an unintended prediction, since he wrote the script in 2016) or how it relates to the Baku. However, the political message is clear: the concept of a utopia is unattainable in the real world, especially under capitalism. The main appeal of Cryptozoo is its artistry, but its political themes will remain planted in your head long after viewing.
Dash Shaw’s animated fantasy Cryptozoo celebrated its Quebec Premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click HERE to follow all of our Fantasia coverage, and be sure to let us know what your favorite cryptid is over on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club! Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.