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Film Review: Keep Calm and “Cryptozoo”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 16th, 2021

Film poster: “Cryptozoo”

Cryptozoo (Dash Shaw, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

As our precious planet fights back against mistreatment from homo sapiens, now and evermore seems a great time to examine the multiplicity of ways our species has proven arrogant, greedy, power-hungry and beyond. Hubris is our middle name. Scratch that: it’s our primary moniker. And yet the endless barrage of warnings does little to sway the unpersuadable, while the rest of us either grouse, try to fix things, or cower in panic. Sometimes, it’s nice to escape into fantasy; how doubly nice (for the future) if that reverie serves, at least in part, as a metaphor for our present. Enter Cryptozoo, an ambitious animated film, set in the 1960s, about the death of idealism. What was once groovy is now grotesque.

Director Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea) and his wife and animation director, Jane Samborski, give us one heck of an oddball universe, an adult fairy tale that very quickly goes sour. After an opening title card that defines “cryptid” – an animal whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated – we meet two twentysomething hippies in the woods as they get naked and get it on. Post-coitus, they notice a large fence. So, what do they do? Why, climb it, of course. It helps that they’re high. On the other side, they see a castle. And then … a unicorn! Unfortunately, this is not a happy story, and what happens next is bloody and disturbing. So much for peace and love.

A still (of unicorn) from CRYPTOZOO ©Magnolia Pictures

We will eventually return to those characters, but in the meantime, we jump over to our protagonist, Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell, I Do… Until I Don’t), a woman who has devoted her life to keeping cryptids safe in the titular zoo, which she manages. Just like Indiana Jones, she has a rival who is always one step behind her. As Lauren tracks down new creatures to protect, he often steals them out from under her, with far less noble intent. Now she is on the hunt for a Baku, a dream-eating cryptid with which she has personal experience (it once devoured her nightmares). Though Lauren means well, is it any better for these beautiful beings to be locked away in her sanctuary than to live free, even with the risk of discovery and death? That is, indeed, the question.

And so the movie wrestles with the ethical quandaries of civilization vs. nature, and whether all people share similar base motives, conscious or not. I’d say we’re all doomed (see above, paragraph one), but one thing at which humanity excels is analyzing our moral corruption. Dash and Samborksi prove highly inventive visual artists, transporting us deep into an acid trip of a cinematic confection that is as hallucinatory as they come. That’s mostly to the good of the piece, though sometimes the strangeness gets in its own way.

The Baku eats young Lauren’s nightmares, from CRYPTOZOO ©Magnolia Pictures

The vocal performances, though engaging, also prove occasionally off-putting, so detached from emotions do the actors sound. Beyond Bell, they include Michael Cera (Lemon), Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Alex Karpovsky (Being Frank) and others. It often seems as if they were directed to bottle their feelings, though the final craziness undoes that restraint. Perhaps that is only proper response to the onscreen shenanigans and/or the approaching real-life end times. Keep calm and carry on, then scream. Maybe the Baku will make it all better in the end.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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