Directed by Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski.
Featuring the voice talents of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie, Emily Davis, Irene Muscara, Owen K. Price, Joce Soubiran, Rajesh Parameswaran, and Ami Patel.
Cryptozookeepers try to capture a Baku, a dream-eating hybrid creature of legend, and start wondering if they should display these beasts or keep them hidden and unknown.
There’s an expression that goes along the lines of “what drugs were they on coming up with this” that I’ve staunchly been against nearly every time I’ve heard it. It’s an assumption that implies an artist wasn’t creative or imaginative enough to come up with something either visually striking, hypnotic, weirdly intelligent, or some combination of all those without being under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Artists generally deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to that.
With that said, the latest from oddball director Dash Shaw (and animation director Jane Samborski) wears its drug trip influences like a badge of honor, which is fine because even a good acid journey or stoner story will still be compelling to a sober individual as long as it’s entertaining and competently put together. However, Cryptozoo plays out like it’s under the effects of a tranquilizer dart, so it’s hard to imagine drugs improving the experience, at least from a narrative perspective rather than bizarreness. That’s also a shame considering I don’t want to or take pleasure in putting out negativity to a movie that’s already not my style (it looks and is presented like something that would play at 3 AM on Adult Swim), but I’m also convinced there’s more to it than personal taste and that Cryptozoo is plain flawed; it’s an assortment of ideas (some of them mildly intriguing) that never coalesce into an engaging story, with attempts at social commentary that are obvious just from reading the plot synopsis.
Even the art style is difficult to grasp, coming across as a tacky mess (especially during nighttime scenes or when the environments are utilizing gimmicks) which hurts to say since it’s hand-drawn in what appear to be computer-generated backgrounds. Sometimes the picture will resume a beautiful watercolor painting, whereas other times, it’s messy, offputting, and appealing hard to a particular crowd. Again, the opening 10 minutes sequence to Cryptozoo takes place at night, so between the muddled visual style and listening to a pair of free spirits (voiced by Louisa Krause and Michael Cera), get fully nude and talk about how they are the only ones that matter in the world, it set the stage for a relentlessly unpleasant assault on the senses.
Soon after, the madly in love couple comes across a fence, deciding to climb over it. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to not be a good idea as a unicorn on the other side is startled and ends up impaling one of them with its horn. Meanwhile, the survivor of the duo retaliates (despite their previous 10 minutes of rambling about loving nature and animals) by murdering it. The brief action beat may have looked ugly, but at least something was happening, which is something I can’t say for the rest of Cryptozoo.
From there, we are introduced to the real protagonist, a former military brat named Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell) who now goes on secret missions to rescue cryptids, which are basically mythological creatures that the military is also tracking down so they can capture and train for combat. The primary reason for doing so is that one of the most powerful beings visited her one night and sucked away her worst nightmare. Meanwhile, the government would also like such a beast to stop the average person from having and chasing their dreams.
Other concepts are explored here, such as the titular Cryptozoo run by Joan (Grace Zabriskie), designed like a world map, so individual cryptids still live in living conditions that resemble their natural habitats. The central idea for doing so is that as ordinary people begin visiting the zoo, they can learn about these fantastical beings slowly becoming unafraid of their abilities and strength. Perhaps most intriguingly are the addition of humanoid cryptids, especially a Gorgon known as Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), blending in as a regular person with face wear, also planning to get married to a human being. It should also be safe to say gathering all these rare beasts into one area doesn’t pan out as intended.
These characters and more cross paths while searching for the dream-eating Baku cryptid, with plenty of shock value along the way, including an animated orgy among other sex scenes that might even make Caligula blush. At one point, the film seems to want to explore how strippers can be taken advantage of during the hiring process (yes, the story is all over the place), but like most absent social commentary, it seldom passes the conceptualization stage. Even when the cryptid protectors, activists, hippies, military, and majestic creatures themselves are laying waste to their surroundings, Cryptozoo never registers as engaging or emotional. However, its biggest crime is probably rarely being exciting to look at during all that chaos. It’s one thing to resemble a drug trip, but Cryptozoo overdoses on aesthetics and is over-stylized, becoming a tedious bore that drags itself through every minute of its scant 90-minute running time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com