Set in a world where humans and mythical creatures call cryptids exist together, Cryptozoo follows Lauren (Lake Bell), a woman who has built a zoo specifically designed to showcase these otherworldly beings to the world. When Lauren hears of a military plot to capture a dream-eating legendary creature called a Baku, she partners with a cryptid named Phoebe (Angelika Papoulia) and sets out to rescue the beast and return it to her zoo.
Written and directed by Dash Shaw, Cryptozoo is a wild and mostly compelling look at the things that divide us and what it means to bring people together. Despite emphasizing adult themes, Shaw’s animation feels both unique and familiar. With a style reminiscent of children’s books, there’s a different kind of beauty to the film as its details and bright water colours highlight the innocence and joy of nature. However, the film’s tone also leans into something far darker and more mature. As such, Shaw never allows you to get comfortable with the area either. Animated sexuality, violence and more highlight the edgier aspects and ground the film within the real world. The result is something both intriguing and off-putting as the viewer remains dazzled by its style yet never fully comfortable either.
Admittedly, the animation here feels far more remarkable than the performances of its voice cast. Although the film has some incredible talent, vocal work here doesn’t particularly excite. (Although Angelika Papoulia turns in some solid work as the earnest and frustrated Phoebe.)
What is most interesting about Cryptozoo though, is its commentary on the nature of acceptance. Although the development of the Cryptozoo began with the intention to bridge the gap between humans and cryptids, the facility has not accomplished its goal. Instead, the zoo’s middle ground philosophy has actually offended both sides. On the one hand, there are those who despise all cryptids and seek their destruction. (“People fear what they do not understand,” we’re reminded.) This sort of hatred is openly toxic. On the other hand though, when held up against Phoebe’s earnestness, the more subtle danger may stem from Lauren herself.
Although Lauren adores cryptids and sees them as valuable parts of the world that need to be cherished, her zoo still creates barriers. To her, the zoo is a “necessary stepping stone” to acceptance. Allow people to see them in captivity and they’ll know that they’re not so bad, she reasons. However, whereas Lauren’s vision seems noble, it falls short when partnered with Phoebe’s more hopeful dream. Despite the hopes behind the development of the zoo, Phoebe argues that acceptance doesn’t come at a distance. As a medusa-like character who wants to marry a human, she doesn’t believe that she should have to hide who she is in order to make others comfortable. To Phoebe, the goal is simply to live in peace with others. As a result, Phoebe’s more wholistic dream of togetherness exposes the fact that Lauren’s vision falls short. (In fact, it borders on segregation.) In this way, the film becomes a metaphor for acceptance of others, despite the differences that intimidate us.
Beautifully crafted and executed, Cryptozoo is certainly one of the more creative animated ventures this year. Though, its mature storytelling is what sets it apart. This is not your typical animated fare. Shaw has very specific cultural conversations that he wants to explore and he willing to lean into the darkness in order to do so.
Cryptozoo is available on demand and in select theatres on Friday, August 20th, 2021.