'Cryptozoo' Review: A Dazzling, Deeply Cynical, 'Jurassic Park' For Mythical Creatures [Sundance 2021]

"Maybe we'll find something magical..."

There's something about Cryptozoo that truly captures your imagination. Dash Shaw's kaleidoscopic animated film follows a group of well-intentioned hunters of mythical creatures, who aim to gather these "cryptids" in a sanctuary called the Cryptozoo. But it's less a sanctuary than an amusement park, a gaudy ploy to introduce these creatures of legends to the public — and make a little cash off of it. But while the 1960s-set Cryptozoo is undeniably an awesome feat of animation — recalling the likes of the psychedelic Yellow Submarine crossed with the stop-motion classic Fantastic Planet — with a cutting message, it doesn't leave room for awe and mystery that the legendary "cryptids" at the center of the film would usually inspire.

Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea) writes and directs the slyly anti-Disney film, digging into the idea of capitalizing on the magic of the world and turning it into a corporate product. Featuring eye-popping animation that toes the line between garishly ugly and beautiful, Cryptozoo follows a cryptid rescuer Lauren Grey (a wonderfully tough-as-nails Lake Bell), who finds and retrieves abused mythical creatures for her wealthy benefactor Joan (Grace Zabriskie).

Joan is in the process of creating the titular Cryptozoo, a "sanctuary" for all the cryptids of the world that operates as a theme park. Will-o'-the-wisps put on light shows in a grand auditorium, mischievous forest sprites flit in and out of a theme park ride display, humanoid cryptids sell popcorn and toys to guests alongside human staffers. It's a utopian vision of humans and cryptids living side by side in harmony, not a glorified monkey show. At least that's what Lauren tells her skeptical new partner Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a Gorgon in hiding who assimilates into the world by wearing contact lenses and a headscarf over her hair of tranquilized snakes. But Lauren isn't convinced, even as she argues with her human fiancé (Raj Parameswaran) that Cryptozoo is just a stepping stone for people to finally accept the cryptids who had long been hiding in the dark corners of the world.

Cryptozoo's version of a theme-park utopia is a not-so-subtle nod to Walt Disney's original vision of Epcot as his own utopian company town, a self-sustaining planned community that was scrapped after Disney's death. The Cryptozoo is a literalization of that — and cynically, of the whole Disney legacy of turning fairy tales into commercial products — and of taking the magic of the world and neatly packaging it into a digestible version. The cryptids are not monsters but cute mascots that can sell you your popcorn and buckle you into your roller coaster ride.

It's a clever concept and a sharp indictment of our own pop culture scene, so heavily dominated (one could even say, monopolized) by the House of Mouse as it is. But it's one that Cryptozoo stretches out over a longer-than-necessary runtime, centering the story around the capture of the baku, a legendary dream-eating hybrid creature that is being targeted by the U.S. government, which wants to turn it into a weapon to wipe out the dreams of the counter-culture movement. Lauren has a personal investment in the baku, a creature she encountered as an army brat in Okinawa, which saved her life and sparked her own passion for rescuing cryptids. It was this encounter that turned Lauren into a kind of Indiana Jones-like superhero, creating a career out of busting cryptid-trading rings and rescuing the poor, abused creatures across the globe. Used to working alone, Lauren bristles at having Phoebe as a partner, but the two of them turn out to be unmatched for the garrisons led by greedy fellow cryptid hunter Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who dreams of creating a deadly army out of the mythical creatures, with the baku at the vanguard.

Cryptozoo owes a lot, visually and thematically, to Fantastic Planet, a psychedelic 1973 French-Czech stop-motion animated film whose avant-garde use of cutout drawings lent to its surreal sci-fi story. With its flat hand-drawn characters moving briskly across the richly detailed backgrounds, Cryptozoo is bursting to the seams with dazzling, shocking, brutal (and edgy, this is an adult animated film, remember) visuals.

But, and this may sound shallow of me, that particular roughshod hand-drawn style wasn't always pleasant to look at. That may be the point, with the ugliness of the human characters standing in stark contrast to the cosmic beauty of the extraordinary creatures and surreal dream imagery — two worlds which may not be meant to stand side-by-side. It invokes a sense of wonder, regardless, but one that doesn't carry through to the film which was so jam-packed with stuff that it left little room for the mystery that it so adamantly argues for.

Cryptozoo leans heavily into its '60s setting, introducing the film with a counterculture couple (Louisa Krause and Michael Cera) whose tryst in the woods ends up setting off the film's bloody climax, and whose accidental stumbling into the zoo briefly touches on the cosmic wonder that the film argues for. But the film's flat characters (not just visually), with the blatantly evil government soldiers and greedy traitors, left me with a dirty, unpleasant feeling. Again, that might be the intention. Perhaps humans are so flawed and inherently violent that we don't deserve the beautiful mysteries of the world. It's only fitting that such a colorful, kaleidoscopic film about the dangers of corporatizing magic would beget such a deeply cynical message.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10