I write a cryptid column for Daily Grindhouse. While I am writing this very review I am wearing a Mothman beanie and T-shirt. Suffice to say, I love cryptids. So naturally, when I heard there was going to be an animated film called CRYPTOZOO about a woman who saves mythical creatures and is dedicated to their protection, I lost my damn mind. Sadly, I found myself disappointed by a story that couldn’t have been more tailored towards my interests. While the animation is beautiful, the creature design is fantastical, and the first half is an adventure I myself would love to embark on, the last half of CRYPTOZOO dissolves into a cliched narrative where Shaw placed JURASSIC PARK and DANCES WITH WOLVES into a blender and poured on the creation.
In Dash Shaw’s second feature film, Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) has dedicated her life to saving cryptids from becoming commodities traded to the government to create bioweapons. In her dedication to protect these beings, she and her mentor capture them to keep them safe in a cryptid zoo. The path to Hell is paved with good intentions, and while they think they are creating a utopia where these creatures can live in peace, they fail to look past their own purview. When Gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) joins the team, she begins to question their intentions.
While contemplating the ethical implications of their “utopia,” Lauren and Phoebe search for the illusive Baku, a dream-eating cryptid that can remove nightmares. But the ruthless Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan) also wants the Baku to sell to the government for big money. The film becomes a battle between perceived good and evil that have staked their claim on another group, which is where the story becomes cliche; this ends as essentially a white savior narrative.
The central metaphor of CRYPTOZOO is about acceptance, but the message gets a little lost in the different kinds of cryptids. The humanoids, such as Phoebe and a horny faun voiced by Peter Stormare, want to be treated like people instead of freaks, but then there are beasts that just want to be free. There seem to be different conversations going on about human rights and animal welfare in the same breath, which doesn’t always feel right. Lauren and Joan don’t lock up humanoids, but they do place beasts in cages. The humanoids are searching for basic human rights while the beasts are forced to be locked away with no voice, which creates a strange hierarchy of subspecies that isn’t ever fully explored; how is a cryptid’s humanity even judged? Its politics are definitely well-meaning, using cryptids as a metaphor for race relations, but ultimately come off as slightly misguided.
There is also a suggested narrative where Cryptozoo owner Joan has sex with a giant green scaled cryptid. They are partners, and I wanted more about their relationship and if it’s considered consensual or he’s a sexual servant. It’s such a small moment, but it feels crucial in discussing the strange ethical considerations of how cryptids are used in service of humanity.
Shaw’s animation is absolutely stunning as CRYPTOZOO looks like a comic book come to life. Lines are sketchy and imperfect, while backgrounds vary in detail, sometimes just containing brushstrokes to look like trees. His world is bright and violent, brought to life with his use of bright colors and layering of 2D figures to create an impressive depth of space. Each cryptid is beautifully designed and captures the absolute wonder, and sometimes fears, inspired by these creatures.
CRYPTOZOO is for the cryptid-loving stoners out there that want to get lost in a colorful world of chaos, complete with giant flying birds and a humanoid that is just a face slapped on a torso. All of the pieces are there to create an animation staple, but unfortunately doesn’t stick the landing. I would still recommend this as a fantastical vision of a world where humans and beasts must coexist.