Sundance Review: Cryptozoo
The sense of immense frustration that one might feel toward Cryptozoo does seem a bit fitting given the world that Dash Shaw created. Perpetually throwing frame after frame of psychedelic imagery up on the screen, the narrative seems more interested in living in the broader world of animation than the one of its own making. Disney’s presence looms large over all American animation, but plenty of features prefer to ignore that reality.
Cryptozoo never seems interested in shaking its middling fascination with capitalism and Disney, never quite sure what to say about them beyond the rudimentary observation that they are bad. This thesis would pack a hell of a lot more punch if it were the case that Cryptozoo was unmistakable good. The narrative never quite comes together enough for any of that to stick.
The film starts with such promise. Two naked hippies, Matthew (Michael Cera) and Amber (Louisa Krause) are doing drugs and having sex, fascinated by a giant fence that looks part-Jurassic Park, part-Star Trek: The Next Generation’s pilot “Encounter at Farpoint.” The animation alternates between crude and exquisitely beautiful, a sentiment that persists throughout the narrative.
Though the film keeps up its psychedelic visuals over the duration of the 95-minute runtime, the actual plot becomes a lot more mundane. The cold open gives way to Lauren (Lake Bell) and Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who operate a sanctuary/theme park for cryptids to find peace, security, and dining options finely tailored to the Cryptozoo’s individual lands. The Disney parody is abundant, but it’s not particularly funny or insightful.
The plot quickly devolves into what’s essentially Archer on acid. There are a lot of action sequences that aren’t very interesting. The script delivers most of its best moments in the first fifteen minutes. It becomes rather jarring to watch the inventive animation dragged down by such a superficially bland narrative, a film at war with itself.
Animation director Jane Samborski, Shaw’s wife, ensures that there’s always something spectacular on the screen to look at. The animation is superb, pretty much solely justifying the uneven experience that is Cryptozoo. You could basically watch the film on mute and still reap the film’s only worthwhile attributes.
Cryptozoo is easy to hate. As a narrative, it certainly does not deserve any love. Everything here should have enhanced the visuals instead of leaving the animation by itself to carry the film.
Despite all that, the animation is pretty great to watch. Maybe not great enough to transform Cryptozoo into the film it sort of wants to be, but it’s hard to write off the whole experience altogether. Shaw’s narrative is a frustrating mess, but there’s enough good here to justify the experience. A frustrating film that at least found some success in avoiding becoming a regrettable waste.