Cryptozoo ends by giving credit equally to writer/director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski. It’s an important distinction, as this bizarre work of art is the creative vision of both members of this married couple, with an animation style so distinctive it almost distracts from the chaotic, wildly imaginative story at play. The movie opens up strikingly, and as someone who went into this blind without seeing any clips or the duo’s previous film, 2016’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (which I’ll surely watch now), I was immediately blown away by the animation style on display. We’re introduced to two lovers, voiced by Louisa Krause and Michael Cera, who fornicate in the woods and hop over a mysterious fence where they encounter a unicorn. Things go pretty south for them after that.
It’s a very dramatic opening, one that throws you for a loop even if you have an idea of what you might expect from the filmmakers. Then we take an abrupt turn to where the meat of the story is focused on, which is that of Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), a self-assigned protector of bizarre mythological creatures known as cryptids, which include that unicorn along with others like an odd miniature elephant creature who sucks the dreams out of people’s heads and a boy who has no idea but instead a face on his torso. This movie is strange.
Trying to describe the core narrative would be a bit difficult, as Shaw has built this entire world from scratch, a kind of cobbling together of ideas from different influences that has formed his own unique invention. The world-building is fascinating, and paired with the unique and mesmerizing animation style it creates a visual palette that I would happily have spent all day watching. I didn’t even need to know what the story was, as I found myself satisfied just in seeing the way that the characters moved and the new settings that they found themselves in.
However, to solely focus on the aesthetic of Cryptozoo would do a disservice to a story that thematically is attempting to do quite a few significant things. Gray tells us of the conflict in this world, effectively establishing at least our base understanding that there are people who want to trap the cryptids and weaponize them for militaristic means, like stealing the dreams of their enemies, and there are people like Gray who want to protect them and give them a safe haven. That’s where the Cryptozoo comes in, a home for them to exist, sheltered from the rest of the world.
What Lauren doesn’t seem to realize, however, is that locking them away from the world is also imprisoning them, trying to save them by isolating them from their ability to live at all. It’s this moral conundrum where Cryptozoo finds its most resonance, as it not only challenges the oppressiveness of those who fear and attack Others, but also the self-serving oppression enacted by supposed allies who think they know what’s right. This isn’t the most groundbreaking of observations, but it at least shows that Cryptozoo has more on its mind than just being a fun romp through this psychedelic trip of a world with genuinely some of the most stunning animation I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time.