Monday 1 February 2021

Sundance 2021: Cryptozoo by Dash Shaw - review

Is a Utopia possible? Director Dash Shaw’s newest ambitious animated offering is a dive into a kaleidoscopic world of mythic creatures called Cryptids. It’s the sort of inventive swing that makes Sundance such an exciting festival for showcasing up-and-coming talent. As a follow-up to My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea Shaw pushes the potentials of animation into intriguing aesthetic and tonal directions. 

The film opens with a young hippie couple making love in the woods together—it’s the film’s most effective scene, immediately embracing the conventions of horror and playing with them stylistically so it feels fresh. After a unicorn attacks the man (Michael Cera!) and kills him we watch as the woman beats the unicorn to death with a rock—the image of violence lingers. 

The rest of the film explores the consequences of conservation, government interference, and black market trading. We follow Lake Bell’s Lauren as she attempts to stop the Cryptids from being captured and sold. The legendary Baku is a powerful creature the US military hopes to weaponize but Lauren sets off to a Cryptid zoo in hopes of learning more so she can stop them. Imagine Greek Mythology planted into Yu-Gi-Oh and you have something vaguely resembling the strange world of Cryptozoo. Within ten minutes you know if this is your cup o’ tea, and if you are at its temperature you’ll have a worthwhile time. 

The film’s concoction of violence, sex, and adult themes have a unique effect—I found a lot of its plot detours trite, and couldn’t find an emotional reason to care about Lauren’s mission, but I often thought to myself “well, I’ve never seen that before!” The film itself presents the magical creatures like a psychedelic zoo we can merely stare at, not showing us their wonder and effects on society, just the potential of a more engaging film—hidden behind a plot that is both too thin and familiar. I was left admiring the aesthetic creativity and vocal performances but cold on its use for a story that never takes off in a gripping direction. It’s the kind of drug-addled fantasy you’d see at 2am on Adult Swim, but a lack of humor makes the entry into this world narrow. I suspect it would’ve been more effective as a short film. Beyond the playful opening scene I never found a way in. 

It’s a notable swing and the type of animation that cinema desperately needs more of. Shaw’s attempt is mixed, possibly hollow, but the angle he’s told this story with is undeniably inspired. In a time when mainstream animation is foolishly only embracing CGI, this is a breath of fresh air to see even attempted. Anyone interested in the possibilities of animation should give it a look; there’s a certain midnight movie crowd this will likely speak to. I was left bored—like I’d just watched a friend describe an acid trip they had; however, there’s enough crumbs here to warrant keeping an eye out for whatever Shaw imagines next.

Review by Andy Zachariason

Cryptozoo. USA 2021. Directed by Dash Shaw. Starring Michael Cera, Lake Bell, Angeliki Papoulia...

Cryptozoo does not have any distribution in place as yet.

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