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Film Review

CRYPTOZOO (2021) Review

J-L reviews surrealist animated movie CRYPTOZOO calling it “an eclectic bazaar of a film.” Catch it streaming on Mubi from October 22.

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Cryptozoo (Mubi)

Cryptozoo streams via Mubi from tomorrow, October 22, 2021.

Synopsis

In a world inhabited by humans and rare mythical creatures known as “Cryptids”, zookeeper Lauren brings these beings under the protection of her sanctuary—the Cryptozoo. As she tracks down a dream-eating beast, she enters into a dangerous mission to find it before it is captured by the military.

Review

“Maybe we needed them more than they needed us.”

Cryptozoo sees acclaimed graphic novelist Dash Shaw restored to the screen following his animated feature debut with 2016’s My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. As Shaw returns to the world of film, his sophomore creation allows us to enter into an intriguing new world of spectacle and mystery.

The plot follows Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell) who, following a mutually beneficial encounter with a dream-eating Baku in her childhood, strives to protect Cryptids by working with an older woman named Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie) to build a Cryptozoo – a supposed sanctuary for these mythical beings. However, the military are on the lookout for Cryptids to capture so that they can use them at war, constantly threatening their safety.

The film is undoubtedly cerebral, reminiscent of a hallucinogenic trip with its quirky tone and deadpan dialogue. The animation style is Adult Swim-esque, which aids that surreal atmosphere. Whereas computer-generated animation could have made the story appear more lifelike and relatable, the style serves as a constant reminder that this world is truly fantastical in nature. The editing and transitions between animated panels are often completed with panels from the previous scene overlapping into the next, subconsciously further enhancing the overall dreamlike quality.

John Carroll Kirby’s gentle, soothing, trance-like score perfectly compliments the fantastical tone of the movie, with soft and slow beats accompanied by angelic non-lyrical vocals. The musical composition flows beautifully throughout without ever being overbearing, always allowing the visuals and dialogue to take precedent whilst still serving as a recurring presence that aids the on-screen mythos.

The film deftly presents and challenges a multitude of viewpoints on zoological ethics, capitalist endeavours and military wrongdoings through its almost espionage-thriller style and action-adventure genre. The fundamental status and morality of zoos is called into question: are they genuine sanctuaries for animals or are they instead simply little more than unjustifiably glorified carnivals that exploit them for profit? A Gorgon named Magdalene, who is assigned to the Baku case alongside Lauren, at one point compares the titular Cryptozoo to a shopping mall and a circus, a critique of the capitalist exploitation of animals for profit.

However, the film presents this issue with nuance as a complex conundrum rather than a steadfast and complete truth, since sometimes it can be difficult to discern good intentions when the money generated is utilised to serve the Cryptozoo’s primary purpose, to serve as a sanctuary. Of course, then comes the matter of which method of protection is more ideal: well-intentioned captivity or freedom in secrecy?

The desire of the military to utilise the Cryptids as weapons in human conflicts draws parallels to the vile enrolment of animals for warmongering throughout history. Here, the beautiful Cryptid creatures are treated as little more than savage or unintelligent monsters. The irony, of course, is that the humans are the real monsters who wreck havoc by harming and taking whoever and whatever they so please.

During the film’s prologue, Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera) contends that animals merely see humans as simple lumps of flesh because they think that animals are unintelligent. Yet, as is demonstrated consistently throughout Cryptozoo, humans likewise see and treat animals as lumps of flesh in spite of our intellect and intelligence, and that is even worse. This also comes without mentioning the fact that many of the Cryptids in the film are actually incredibly intelligent, but are treated otherwise due to the human ego and the relative power that the humans hold over the Cryptids.

In this vein, there is also a potential feminist and anti-racist reading of the film with regards to the real life treatment of woman and non-white people by men and white people. Indeed, throughout the film, it is almost always male characters who demonstrate the harmful and violent tendencies while the female characters are usually the ones who offer to help and care. There is also an interesting subtext surrounding the humanoid Cryptids with regard to human racial relations. For instance, at one moment, Magdalene is casually referred to as ‘a Medusa’ in what can either be taken to be intentionally derogatory or something closer to ‘casual racism’, a kind of apathetic degradation that exposes a malicious indifference. Meanwhile, in her day to day life, she has no choice but to wear contact lenses and tranquilise her snakes in order to conform and to ‘fit in’ amongst humans. At one point, it is even despicably suggested to her by a member of the military to just cut the snakes off.

The conclusion of the piece offers a possible ambiguity, potentially taking the notion of ‘it was all a dream’ to the very extreme. Whether the story within the film was just a dream or in fact reality, the film itself serves as a meta-narrative for the dreams of its creator. People need to dream for change to be made. This dream serves as an allegorical story – a fable – and fables act as enduring methods through which we may learn, grow and develop to become better people. It is likely no accident that the central Cryptid of the film is a dream-eater.

Here, the story therefore appears even more surreal and yet at once more palpable a story since Michael talks about having a dream of storming the Capitol building, but instead for the purpose of rebuilding society to be fairer – with peace, justice and equality for all.

Verdict

Cryptozoo is an eclectic bazaar of a film resembling a hallucinogenic fever dream that is most certainly not going to work for everyone. However, its themes and messages ought to be universal, and they are presented engagingly through some captivating worldbuilding and an enchanting approach to its animation, narrative and musical score.


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