Cryptozoo is an oddly-animated feature that rambles along like it was a storybook adventure crafted in the Seventies – when details were blurred in a haze and stories for children were not always safe.
Honestly, Cryptozoo accomplishes the goal of any good fantasy and science fiction story by crafting a timely tale set in a timeless fashion. Unfortunately the chosen medium and distinct art style highly restricts what should be a tale of openness and inclusion.
Cryptids are mythological creatures whose existence remain hidden, thus never proven. Think unicorns and hydra; the Mothman and the Jersey Devil. In Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for these creatures is created to act as a safe space to interact with humans peaceably. Kinda like Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. This retreat is maintained by Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) who is the Indiana Jones of cryptozookeepers. She wants cryptids to be safe while teaching the outside world to love and accept them. Her Belloq is Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a government man seeking to weaponize the creatures while trying to capture a Baku, a dream-eating hybrid creature of legend. Lauren wants the Baku for her museum. I mean zoo.
The quest has her interacting with gorgons and satyrs and a tarot card reader who does not have much hope in the future. All the while, a naked and copulating pair of hippies might be the calamitous cause of such a dire end.
Yup. Naked. Copulating. Hippies.
Dash Shaw and his wife, animation director Jane Samborski, produce a distinctive animated feature that could be an illegitimate grandson of Ralph Bakski’s more imaginative offerings. Shaw and Samborski work with simplistic, pencil-drawn, 2D renderings on watercolor backgrounds that make for quite the artistic hurdle. Think South Park meets Yellow Submarine but all in pre-visual sketches. This move is no doubt totally daring, and they use some inventive transitional swipes that would capture George Lucas’ attention, but this is all too much for a full-feature.
Animation is, theoretically, budgetless. The artist can sculpt and paint and render imaginative, unseen worlds and bring them to life. Why then does Cryptozoo look like flipbook doodles on the corners of a Dungeons & Dragons module?
Voice acting is where it is at for animated features and Lake Bell gives it her all as the movie’s protagonist. She brings warmth to the cold and an edge to lead in times of quietness. Thomas Jay Ryan plays Nicholas hard and straight; honest with a hint of incredulity as his red character navigates a sea of blue.
Others come and go as required. Michael Cera as a stoned lover. Peter Stomare as an accented satyr. Both are important yet small roles.
During the quest there is much talk of dreams and love. What is right for the creatures while questioning the necessity of the sanctuary. Many of these questions go answered and Lauren struggles with the present while trying to prepare for the future. She speaks of love and freedom yet her words ultimately do not amount too much. The script deliberately points these out, yet it too is silent with answers.
The animation is certainly an acquired taste. Fortunately, its rudimentary style does not totally diminish the compelling story of social relevance. Fiction like this is what opens conversation regarding the importance of freedom and the rights of all. Including animators with questionable art styles.