Dash Shaw’s entrancing animated fable imagines a utopia filled with a dazzling array of mythic creatures.
In the world of Dash Shaw’s fantastical animation, the only boundaries are that of human imagination. The film is centred on the premise of Cryptozoology, a subculture who preserve the knowledge of folkloric creatures such as the Camboodi (South American mega worm), the Baku (a Japanese dream-eating creature) and the Gorgon (an ancient Greek legend). Cryptozoologists call these creatures cryptids; animals whose existence is disputed.
When Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) sneak off into the woods for a sexual escapade they are met with a humongous barbed wire fence. On the other side, they discover the cryptozoo; the first ever zoo to rescue and house mythical creatures. It is within these high walls that Lauren’s (Lake Bell) dedication to the protection of cryptids thrives, indebted to the Baku which freed her from childhood nightmares.
As a cryptozookeeper, Lauren’s greatest ambition is bringing the Baku to safety. She joins forces with Phoebe (Angeliki Papouila), a Gorgon (a human-passing humanoid cryptid), who champions the rare creatures. As its ethereal narrative unfolds, Cryptozoo becomes an abstract allegory of compassion and allyship, exploring the multifaceted perspectives of idealism. With the mystical creatures being hunted for nefarious means, Lauren wrangles with her own ideals, asking whether the domestication of the cryptids is having the desired effect.
At times meandering and messy, Cryptozoo remains nonetheless a wondrous vision – itself a mythical creature in the context of cinema. The vibrancy of the animation is highly impressive, brought to life over five years by Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski. Samborski uses vivid colour not for naturalism, but to drift in and out of realism as the film moves between a dream state and drawn life.
The film’s peculiarity is exactly why it should be treasured. When Amber first scales the gates of the cryptozoo she says, “utopias never work out.” Yet embedded in the hand-crafted language of Shaw’s film is a tale that echoes beyond the walls of the cryptozoo and into our own world.
Published 30 Jan 2021
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