Written & Directed by Dean Shaw
If Cryptozoo feels like an indie comic book, you wouldn’t be wrong. The creator Dean Shaw is a comic book writer/artist. The work looks like a crude outsider art piece with hints of inspiration from other obscure animated works. I personally saw a lot of Fantastic Planet in the character movement and the themes of the narrative. The story is ambitious but ultimately fails to come together, in my opinion. There’s something here, but I don’t think all the ingredients mixed well. We have an animated film that wants to build a vast world and talk about the environment & humanity.
Our protagonist Lauren (Lake Bell) has devoted her life to rescuing cryptids (mythical creatures & beings) and creating the Cryptozoo, a place for them to live & be put on display to raise money for maintenance. Lauren’s partner in this venture is Joan, an older woman who has been on the same mission for most of her life. They find a third to join their quest in Phoebe, a Gorgon who uses sedatives on the snakes in her hair and wears contact lenses to hold back her stone vision. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones looking for cryptids and find a rival working for the military who wants to weaponize the mythical beings. The story takes place during the early 1970s, and these cryptids are seen as a possibility to turn the tide in the Vietnam War. Laurent is obsessed with stopping them, but her hubris threatens to ruin her dream.
There’s a strict adherence to present cryptids referenced throughout world mythologies without inventing brand new things. And they don’t just go with the ones most commonly known. The film is full of familiar and obscure creatures with brief explanations of who or what they are. The central cryptid of the plot is a baku, a Japanese dream devourer. It’s clear by the creature’s look that it was inspired by tapir with its elephantine nose, which the baku uses to eat up the nightmares of a sleeping person. The U.S. military wants the baku to kill the dreams of the young people participating in the anti-war movement.
The biggest problem with Cryptozoo is that the fundamental elements of the plot are painfully cliche. The villain of the story is everything you expect from a military bad guy. He tells Lauren that they are not so different & he hates the cryptids because they are strange, and he can’t understand them. It’s grossly one-dimensional and causes the story to feel like a slog. Lauren herself is a flat character with one goal: find the baku because it was nice to her as a child. She has no personal life and no other conflicting goals in life. The most interesting the story ever presents Lauren is when Phoebe is skeptical about the idea of Cryptozoo and sees it as an exploitative venture.
I found the whole picture lacks any depth I expect out of indie films which have always been a place to find more thoughtful storytelling. I think there was ambition here, but the movie feels like any generic action-science fiction flick you might see the Rock star in. Beyond Phoebe, we really don’t get a sense of the cryptids and their thoughts & emotions. For all the posturing the movie does to present this metaphor for animal rights, it fails to let us know what the beings at the center of the problem want.
Without pleasant animation to look at and a tired, overly wrought story, there’s not much to recommend about Cryptozoo. I don’t know if this would have been a more compelling story if it was presented as a graphic novel, but it falls horribly short as a movie. Even the voice acting from some very talented performers is stilted and feels poorly directed. The story also never genuinely capitalized on its time period rather than a reference for aesthetics. There are some charming moments, but overall, I can’t imagine even people interested in this movie enjoying it immensely.