Nothing to do with currency, this one. For director Dash Shaw’s latest animation, we’re in a space created specifically for cryptids, explained early on as “creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated.” So think unicorns, gryphons, gorgons – anything mythological or strange that the human race deems as a threat. All except for a few people, that is.
Cryptozoo starts with a couple sneaking off into the inky black woods to reflect woozily on life and have a little naked fun. That they bear more than a passing resemblance to Alex Comfort’s best seller, The Joy Of Sex, is no coincidence. We’re in the late 60s/early 70s, the heyday the hippy movement and when America was still wrestling with itself over Vietnam. The couple stumble across what seems to be a military establishment behind a massive fence, but it turns out to be a cryptozoo, created by vet Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), who has dedicated her life to rescuing and sheltering cryptids from anybody who wants to exploit them – the military in particular. And there is one creature she’s determined to save, a mythical baku who “ate” her dreams and rescued her from being haunted by the terrors of the night.
The film’s setting isn’t so much a context as the entire basis for the film. Popular culture of the day permeates the narrative – tarot cards, astrology, weed, psychedelia – which also focuses on the big issues of the period, ones that still resonate today. They’re laid out on a plate: how people are scared of anything that doesn’t fit the norm and tend to lash out at them, whether they should they be allowed to function in society or be set apart, how we balance our duty to the state and individuals and whether an idealistic vision of the world ever become a reality. The last is the one that Lauren struggles with. Having set up what she fervently believes is the perfect world for the cryptids, crossing paths with the hippy couple makes her wonder whether displaying the rare beasts (admittedly in confinement) really is preferable to them staying hidden and, ultimately, perhaps better protected.
It’s a rambling narrative, one that stays in synch with the tone of the film. What stands out, though, is the quality of the animation, hand drawn with love and affection by director Shaw and partner Jane Samborski. It mixes styles, from the pen and ink lines of the twisted black trees in the opening scenes to watercolour washes, beautifully created mythical creatures and vibrant, trippy landscapes. Visually, it’s impressive, but the solitary still released from the film could lead you to expect something in the style of Wes Anderson: believe us, it’s nothing like that. It has a style of its own, even though it draws on certain artistic influences – Lauren, for instance, with her flowing hair and full mouth looks like she’s stepped straight out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.
Wearing its hippy credentials with pride, there’s a sense that Cryptozoo is an attempt to explain what happened to the movement and why it ultimately dwindled away. But the contemporary relevance of its themes means the two timespans are tangled up in each other and, coupled with a convoluted storyline, all that’s left is the superb animation and equally excellent voice work from the likes of Bell, Michael Cera, Louise Krause and Angeliki Papoulia. And a lingering question. Given the story, was it worth all the effort?
Animation, Fantasy | Cert: tbc | Sundance 2021 | Dir. Dash Shaw | The voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Louise Krause, Angeliki Papoulia.