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Heads up: I was able to watch this series before its recent release via a screener sent to me by Magnolia Pictures. I got no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you, Magnolia Pictures.
PARENTAL HEADS UP: There is some nudity throughout the film. This film is not for kids and more for older teens to young adults and above. The viewer’s discretion is advised. Enjoy the review!
Back in 2017, for what felt like half a year, Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea was my favorite animated film of that year. 2017 was a rather middling year for animation since it seemed like all of the best films were saved for 2016 and 2018. It didn’t have many standout films until the latter half of the year, and that was when I felt like the year finally had some competition. To me, if I like or hate your movie, I want to at least feel like I’m getting something different or distinct, and not just be some bog-standard film that was made for the sake of making something. When you are someone like Dash Shaw, well, you are bound to leave an impression with his vibrant visuals and distinct writing. That’s why I was super pumped about the fact he had a new movie coming out, and was in pain that I wasn’t able to check it out during Sundance and Annecy, but luckily, I got a screener and am able to check it out now! This review will be about Dash’s new movie, Cryptozoo.
Like I said above, this film was written and directed by Dash Shaw. It had its world premiere at Sundance back in January 2021 winning the festival’s Innovator award, competed in the Contrechampe section at Annecy, and will be distributed in the states by Magnolia Pictures. So, with Dash bringing us another abstract and wild experience, what do I think of this new surreal trip? Does its busy visuals drag down the film or do I gel with it like peanut butter and jelly? Let’s take a look and a visit to Cryptozoo.
The story takes place in a world where cryptids exist alongside humans. Our main character is Lauren Grey, voiced by Lake Bell. She has made it her life’s goal to find, capture, and protect cryptids in a zoo/animal sanctuary-like environment after encountering one at a young age. Along with a rich widow named Joan, voiced by Grace Zabriskie, she is assisted by a medusa named Phoebe, voiced by Angeliki Papoulia, and is on a quest to find a mystical creature/cryptid called a Baku, an entity that is known for eating dreams both good and bad. They have to get it before it falls into the grasp of the military and a ruthless individual named Nicholas, voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan. Can they get the Baku before it’s too late?
So, let’s start with the obvious, the animation is bonkers. While it might flow and feel like papercraft with very stiff and limiting animation, you can tell this was an artistic decision and not a budget or limitation. Again, just because it’s not made by Disney or had the budget of a Pixar film, doesn’t mean animated films on smaller budgets or teams look worse. There is such a thing as art direction. It reminds me of a lot of those papercraft animated features from Russia, but done with more modern tech, and is combined with some proper 2D animation to give this film an extremely wild visual flair. You can not say this film looks like any other animated film out there. It looks like a bunch of clipart and detailed cutouts. It’s a trippy film as well, using a ton of psychedelic visuals to express different story beats and a mood that I can only compare to films like Foam Bath from 1979. The voice cast brings a more grounded vibe to film than the more comedic Sinking into the Sea. It helps that you have a pretty good cast with Lake Bell, Micheal Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Grace Zabriskie, Peter Stormare, Louisa Krause, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Alex Karpovsky.
However, we have seen features with amazing animation fall flat under the story and writing department. It’s not uncommon to find films that do so. Luckily, while the visuals may be a bit much for the eyes at points, the story is substantial enough to keep you invested. It has an indie feel as we see the commentary about how our protagonists and antagonist plan to use the cryptids for their use. Sure, Lake Bell’s character might be doing the right thing by wanting to help protect and save the cryptids, but the film and script want you to see it from a different point of view with the zoo/sanctuary setting. To be clear, it’s not saying both sides are equally bad. The villain is obviously in the wrong with how they obtain cryptids by force or through the blackmarket dealings. It’s more that it’s painting it all in a morally grey way rather than trying to fence-sit on the topic at hand. You can pull a lot from how the cryptids are represented here in the film, and I’m glad the film decided to have an ambitious tone to its experience. Yes, some stories do and should need very straightforward stories, but when you get to mix it up a little via something that’s not so clear cut, then you can have a more distinct journey. You still have to be careful, but I felt like Dash Shaw did a good job portraying the two sides of humanity and the cryptid situation.
While the visuals may be a touch overload at times, and the dialogue is calm and beefy, Cryptozoo is unlike any other animated film out in 2021. It might not be my favorite, and its major award season chances are probably going to be in the lower bracket of getting nominated, but I think it deserves a chance. It will be out on demand and will have a small theatrical release on August 20th, and I think everyone should check it out! If you are looking for something distinct, then you will be delighted to know that this film is truly worthy of the word unique. Now then, we will be hopping back over to Netflix, and will be checking out the new Netflix action fantasy film The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf.
Rating Go See It!