Following up his 2016 feature debut My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, comic book writer and filmmaker Dash Shaw continues with his quirky style of animation with Cryptozoo, a countercultural-tinted riff on environmentalism. Though its 60s-inspired, Gilliam-esque animation style is certainly awkward enough to draw the notice of the arthouse and indie crowds, Cryptozoo’s storytelling and themes fail to come up to the complexity of even a middling Pixar effort.
Cryptozoo is set in a world where mythological creatures are routinely captured and exploited for their magical abilities. Working for Joan (Grace Zabriskie) at the eponymous zoo (or sanctuary, as the park’s employees term it), Lauren is a self-appointed saviour of cryptids, ie mythological creatures, rescuing them from the wild – where they risk capture by nefarious actors, such as the dastardly military man Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who wishes to exploit the cryptids’ magical abilities for power – to the safe haven of Joan’s sanctuary. By the way, the park sells admission and sells merch, as well as training the beasts for choreographed shows, but all in the name of conservation.
Naturally, Nicholas and Lauren clash, along with a menagerie of supporting characters including a gorgon who can pass for human, Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia, stealing the show with one of the few non-grating performances), and a squeaking, timid blemmeye, a headless, human-like creature with a face on his torso. And wouldn’t you know it, their conflict comes to a head at the park, when the inhabitants escape and wreak havoc.
If any of this sounds familiar, that’s only because it is. Even the lesser Jurassic Park films have handled similar themes with more deftness, grace, and, dare I say it, entertainment. Indeed, it’s telling that the Lauren / Nicholas dynamic is most closely aligned to the ultra-corporate franchise entry, Jurassic World. In fairness, there are some gorgeous visuals here, especially when animation director Jane Samborski goes full tilt with her intoxicating mix of psychedelia, medieval painting and world mythology. It’s almost enough to forgive what is a bare bones plot going through the motions of a very simplistic, didactic and at times, smug, morally binary story.
Similarly, Shaw prefers to gesture at metaphors rather than really explore them; at various points, the cryptids seem to represent the environment, indigenous people, racialised minorities, political dissidents and LGBT people, all in a wooly fugue of arched eyebrows and ill-defined politics. The film never really seems to make its mind up, but whatever the lesson is here, Cryptozoo sure seems pleased about it. The film is aware of the hypocrisy and contradictions at the heart of the Cryptozoo park, but it only ever dimly expresses them. Is this lack of engagement in its own themes ironic, misplaced, or an ironic indictment of the characters’ lack of understanding of the world in which they ignorantly meddle? I suspect that if one were to ask Cryptozoo, its response would be as non-commital as its narrative.