September 13, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Dash Shaw
Culture Representation: Taking place in San Francisco, Florida, Kentucky and the former Soviet Union in 1967, the animated film “Cryptozoo” features a nearly all white cast of characters depicting humans and hybrid/mutant animals.
Culture Clash: A heroic veterinarian teams up with her boss and a gorgon to rescue a baku (a rare dream-eating hybrid creature) before it is captured and sold on the blaxck market by greedy poachers.
Culture Audience: “Cryptozoo” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in adult-oriented animation that’s a throwback to psychedelic, hand-drawn animation of the late 1960s.
“Cryptozoo” brings an intriguing, adult-oriented alternative to the slick kiddie animation that has oversaturated the movie business. The hand-drawn graphics in “Cryptozoo” are sometimes rough around the edges, but the movie has an adventurous and psychedelic spirit that perfectly suits the story, which is set in 1967. Written and directed by Dash Shaw, with animation direction from Jane Samborski, “Cryptozoo” might not interest viewers who prefer their animation to be more elaborate and modern-looking. But the movie is admirable for being committed to its unique vision instead of trying to look like it wants to be a safe blockbuster hit.
“Cryptozoo” begins with a scene that definitely wouldn’t be in a children-oriented animated movie: A hippie couple in their 20s have sex while on a romantic date in an unnamed wooded area in San Francisco. Get used to seeing full-frontal nudity in “Cryptozoo.” The movie has an extended adventure sequence where one of the heroes spends the entire time naked and is neither self-conscious nor apologetic about it. And there’s a sex orgy scene in the movie.
The amorous couple in the movie’s opening scene are Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and her boyfriend Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera), who are lost in the woods. Amber and Matthew both consider themselves to be part of the counterculture movement. Matthew talks about a dream he had where he and his peers stormed the U.S. Capitol building and started a perfect society. In terms of personality, Amber is feisty, while Matthew is more laid-back.
Amber says about their jaunt in the woods, “I don’t know where we are. Everyone can go fuck themselves!” When Matthew compliments parts of Amber’s body as foreplay, she asks him, “What about something about my personality?” Matthew replies, “I really love your imagination.” That seems to do the trick, because the next thing you know, they’re having sex.
This bliss doesn’t last long though, as Amber gets nervous about spending the night in the woods. She’s afraid that wolves might attack them. Matthew smokes a joint and tells Amber not to get so worried. They wake up to see a seemingly never-ending high fence surrounding them.
Amber and Matthew, who are completely naked, decide to climb over the fence. They see a castle that Matthew remarks reminds him of something that could’ve been built for Walt Disney. And then, a unicorn appears. Matthew accidentally kicks something at the unicorn, which reacts by charging into Matthew and impaling Matthew with its horn.
A frightened and angry Amber tries to get the unicorn off of Matthew and eventually kills the unicorn by pounding it with a rock. After the unicorn dies, Amber breaks off the unicorn’s horn to use as a weapon in case she encounters any more attacking animals. And that’s when Amber looks around and sees that the place where she’s at has several mutant animals in cages. For example, one of the mutant animals is a chicken with a snake’s head.
Amber doesn’t know it yet, but she’s in Cryptozoo, a special sanctuary for mutant animals, called cryptids, that were rescued from poachers and people who want to sell these creatures on the black market. Cryptozoo is the brainchild of a no-nonsense elderly scientist named Joan (played by Grace Zabriskie) and the zoo’s veterinarian Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), who is in her 30s. The operation of Cryptozoo is funded by making it a tourist attraction.
Lauren explains in a flashback and a voiceover that she’s been obsessed with this idea of helping these mutant creatures, ever since she was a little girl and met a cryptid called a baku, which looks like a small elephant. The baku is an animal that can eat dreams, and the baku came to her as a little girl to eat her nightmares.
However, this baku (which is a female) disappeared and hasn’t been seen for decades. The speculation over whether the baku is alive or dead has become an urban legend. Lauren, who hopes to one day see the baku again, says in a voiceover, “I dedicated my life to help keep cryptids like her safe from harm.”
The rest of the movie chronicles an international adventure where there’s a race against time to prevent a group of cryptid hunters from finding the baku. The leader of these poachers is Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), who is ruthless and greedy. Nicholas satyr ally named Gustav (voiced by Peter Stromare), who is hedonistic and untrustworthy.
Lauren and Joan team up with a Gorgon named Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), who hides the snakes on her head by wearing head wraps and wigs. She gives the snakes sleeping medication when she has to be out in public, in order for the snakes not to move around and bring attention to themselves. Phoebe has special powers which are revealed in the story.
Phoebe is reluctant to go on this mission because she wants to spend time with her fiancé Jay (voiced by Rajesh Parameswaran), who is a human and loves and accept Phoebe for who she is. However, Phoebe is convinced to join the mission because Lauren and Joan are both human, and they think it would benefit the mission if a cryptid was also on this journey.
One of the clues to solving the mystery of where the baku might be comes from a recent arrival to Cryptozoo. He is a young male cryptid named Pliny (voiced by Emily Davis), whose entire body is shaped like a human hand. Pliny doesn’t talk, but he can make noises to indicate yes or no answers. However, Pliny has an overprotective mother named Giulia (voiced by Irene Muscara), who has a tendency to interfere with the investigation.
People who enjoy fantasy worldbuilding will find much to like about “Cryptozoo,” which has elements that were definitely influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. “Cryptozoo” is also a rare animated feature film where all of the main heroes are female. The story is somewhat predictable and the dialogue isn’t going to win “Cryptozoo” any animation screenplay awards, but the visuals and some of the scenarios facing the characters are very compelling and presented with a well-paced flair. It’s fair to say that “Cryptozoo” might be one of the most memorable animated films that viewers will see in any given year.