Animated Fantasy Cryptozoo Finds Beauty in the Truly Strange

Animated Fantasy Cryptozoo Finds Beauty in the Truly Strange Cryptozoo! (Image: Sundance Film Festival)

In a world where cryptids are real but misunderstood, a trio of women (one of whom happens to be a Gorgon) join forces to protect the strange beasts that lurk among us. But as we see in Dash Shaw’s gloriously colourful adult animation Cryptozoo, sometimes the best intentions aren’t always what’s best in the end.

The basic story here doesn’t go terribly deep — there are elements of the X-Men in the themes about creature persecution, and a definite Jurassic Park feel to the Cryptozoo itself — but writer-director Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea) and animation director Jane Samborski have created such an imaginative, visually stunning canvas it’s hard to wish for more plot. The main character, Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), is a veterinarian turned cryptozookeeper whose driving passion is travelling the world and risking life and limb to rescue cryptids from those who want to harm, exploit, and/or weaponize them — then bringing them to live in the sanctuary.

Lauren’s white whale is the Japanese baku, the creature that devoured the nightmares that terrified her as a child. When she gets a lead on its whereabouts, she’s more than ready to go after it, but the zoo’s owner, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), wants her to take on a new partner: Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a Gorgon who wears special contact lenses to hide her deadly eyes and tranquilizes the snake-hair that she wears tucked under a headwrap.

I pretty much could have watched Lauren — who’s tough as hell — and the good-hearted Phoebe crisscross the country on daring rescue missions (each location rendered in a different gorgeous colour palette, from the sunset oranges of Orlando to the deep purple hues of seedy small-town Kentucky) for the entirety of Cryptozoo. But the zoo itself and all it symbolises are what drive the themes that the movie’s most interested in exploring.

When we first meet her, Lauren fervently believes the zoo is going to help make the lives of cryptids better; she thinks it’s “a necessary stepping stone” to encourage humankind to accept rather than fear the wondrous creatures in their midst, even the terrifying ones that can’t be tamed. Phoebe is enthusiastic about the mission but taken aback by the place itself (it’s “a little tacky,” she says upon beholding its pseudo-Disneyland aesthetic, and she’s not wrong), while Gustav (American Gods’ Peter Stormare), a Faun whose relationships with his fellow cryptids changes according to his pliable moral compass, has more cutting words: “That shit’s demeaning.”

Lauren eventually comes around to questioning her life’s work, realising that maybe saving creatures to keep them displayed in cages isn’t the best solution. Cryptozoo’s final lesson goes back to a line we hear in act one — “Utopias never work out” — as a pair of lovers exploring the woods around the facility decide to sneak in, not realising the chaos they’ll inadvertently unleash. This may not be an idea original to Cryptozoo, but rarely has any movie taken such a creative, eye-candy-bright, brilliantly surreal approach to illustrating exactly why that’s true — with the added bonus of seeing dragons, manticores, Griffins, a Pegasus, a giant Kraken, and other mythological icons woven into the story, as well as the supreme satisfaction of seeing a pissed-off Gorgon mutter “Fuck you, meathead” while zapping the arsehole who’s been harassing her into stone.

Cryptozoo premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.