Editor-in-Chief Pihla Pekkarinen reviews the highly anticipated animation from Dash Shaw.
Cryptozoo was one of the films I was most excited to see at Sundance this year. An independently-made, hand-drawn, 2D animation five years in the making, featuring tens, if not hundreds of different mythological characters? Yes please. But the final result, whilst impressive, was not quite the film I wanted – which perhaps reflects the lack of funding and public attention given to these kinds of films.
Cryptids are “animals whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated”. The film’s central character, Lauren (Lake Bell) is a lover of cryptids who has dedicated her life to freeing them from people who want to capture them, trade them on the black market, or worst of all, use them for military purposes. She has found work with Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who is designing a Cryptozoo – a safe haven where humans and cryptids can get to know one another, as a stepping stone for cryptids to become accepted in human society. Lauren’s assistant, Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a cryptid herself, is not so sure that the Cryptozoo is the way forward, uncomfortable with its amusement park-like appearance. As Lauren and Phoebe embark on a journey to rescue the baku, a dream-eating elephant cryptid that the US military wants to use to destroy revolutionary dreams, Lauren is forced to consider whether the Cryptozoo is really accomplishing what it was designed to do.
Cryptozoo looks rather spectacular. Before turning to animated films, director Dash Shaw was a comic book artist, and the influence of the Fantagraphics aesthetic is clear. Cryptozoo is animated in the classic ‘ugly-pretty’ style of alternative comics in which the characters themselves are remarkably unattractive, but are set against some rather amazing backdrops. The cryptids are the cornerstone of the film’s visuals and they do not let it down, each more exciting and fantastical than the last. But whilst the obvious influence of comics is refreshing amongst more mainstream animation styles, the film is at times confused about its medium. Particularly in the first half, much of Cryptozoo seems composed merely of animated panels, and you’re left wondering why you’re watching a film at all. After all, films are much more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to make than comics; it felt like I was not seeing the payoff. The second half brings more immersive and elaborate animation sequences, but overall, the animation throughout is somewhat clunky.
Shaw said himself that the film’s soul is in its actors. I wholeheartedly agree. The visuals, whilst undoubtedly impressive, are abstract and removed from the audience. Any sense of intimacy in the film, which admittedly is not much, comes from the actors, who inject it with humanity. What is perhaps most refreshing is the characters’ diverse accents: the variety is surprising to the ear, alerting me to the fact that almost all animated films are voiced by Hollywood actors with the same “neutral” American accent. Hearing major characters speak in a non-American accent without it being a major plot point was a surprisingly enjoyable aspect of the film. Beyond that, the actors do a fantastic job of bringing character, nuance, and emotion to an alien universe and surreal animation style.
Cryptozoo is quite far from what I expected going in. Where I expected a more nonlinear thematic exploration, the plot is a straightforward, three-act narrative arc. It is also much more violent and distressing than expected. An extremely violent scene in the first ten minutes of the film crashes any illusions you may have had of a gentle, dream-like narrative – Cryptozoo has more in common with nightmares than daydreams. The seductive score quickly turns disturbing against the unsettlingly violent backdrop. If one thing is made clear, it is that this animation is not suitable for children.
Overall, Cryptozoo has some wonderful elements. Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski are clearly bursting with imagination. Their creativity is to be envied. The film’s visuals are impressive, the music is used beautifully, and the actors bring the characters to life. But all these elements don’t quite come together to make a wonderful film. As a comic book artist, Shaw doesn’t seem quite familiar enough with the language of cinema to make something completely immersive. Nonetheless, Cryptozoo remains an enjoyable experience that opens up exciting new and underexplored avenues in animated film.