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Sundance 2021: “Cryptozoo” is a visually bonkers trip

Cryptozoo

The new film from Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski uses its breadth of bold psychedelic inspirations to distract from a tepid script.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Somewhere in the forest, Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matt (Michael Cera) strip naked, have sex, and then get high. Matt relays a dream he had of—of all things—storming the Capitol and overthrowing the government. His mind’s eye blends with our objectivity, which, in turn, heightens his and our subjectivities. It’s trippy to say the bare minimum. The animation in Cryptozoo holds a breadth of inspirations. There’s the classic psychedelia of the ‘60s, sure. There’s also the choppy, two-dimensional aesthetic that Fantastic Planet popularized in 1973. Some locales look like a backlit blackboard and some are even cleaner, like in 1981’s Son of the White Mare.

But that’s mostly when Dash Shaw’s latest is peaceful, and that’s not always. Minutes into Cryptozoo, Amber and Matt come across a fenced-in tower and find a collection of caged mythical creatures. Then tragedy unfolds. This isn’t this couple’s story, and there are several spurts of violence, to say the least. Our lead is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a veterinarian who helps the sage Joan (Grace Zabriskie) save cryptids from the government. To be fair, the plot is by far the least original and most protracted part. The visual ingenuity, on the other hand, is something to witness.

With all of this, it’s easy to classify Cryptozoo as more of an experience than a narrative. And it is: it’s a movie where one has to “just go with it.” The main issue, however, is the movie does focus on its plot and characters, none of which are all that intriguing. The allegory of government control and exploitation is an old one. The archetypes, from heroine to non-descript baddies, have predictable arcs. Hell, the movie feels about 20 minutes too long, and it’s only an hour and a half. It’s Jane Samborski’s animation direction that holds the movie together. Truthfully, it runs circles around Shaw’s screenplay. It’s like steel wool on silk.

To be fair, the plot is by far the least original and most protracted part. The visual ingenuity, on the other hand, is something to witness.

That’s to say that while the journey is a gift to the eyes, it’s not the softest. The backgrounds sometimes appear backlit. Character designs are hard-edged on the outside and chalky on the inside. The spurts of violence—of which there are many—relay a preoccupation with the variations of the “inner self.” It’s whenever carnage ensues that some sort of catharsis occurs. The visuals range from intuitive to premeditated, from spiritual to grounded, and the grotesque details similar to the work of David Firth always give way to the aforementioned styles of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s.

One could make the argument that, with this reading, Cryptozoo’s style is the “inner” while its story is the “outer.” One could say that the tale it tells is meant to be skin deep, that it exists as fodder for its trippiness. And likely, that’d hold up. Like how the movie falls under the “just go with it” banner, it’s also worth pointing out that audiences’ mileage will vary. They may find something to hold on to; they may not. Either way, the care on display here is too much to dismiss.

Cryptozoo premiered in the NEXT program of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."