By: Kayla Caldwell
Disclaimer right off the top: This movie became exponentially better [to me] after I smoked a joint.
CRYPTOZOO begins with a horny couple, who disrobe in the middle of the woods, then have their way with each other, before lighting a joint. Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera), stumbles upon a large, very tall fence. It's clearly screaming "DO NOT ENTER," which his partner, Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause), points out. However, he tells her to believe in magic, and that he feels this place is special. He doesn't know the half of it.
The pair, still buck naked, wander around until they find a unicorn, but it's not the beautiful greeting you'd think - quite the opposite, actually. Amber continues forward alone, bloody, and angry.
The focus then shifts, and we meet Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), a woman who has made it her life's mission to rescue cryptids, and bring them to safety. We learn of her background as an army brat, struggling with the harsh realities of war. For ages, she couldn't sleep due to her nightmares. But then she was visited by the Baku, a powerful cryptid who eats away your nightmares.
Now, Lauren is desperate to find the Baku, a colorful, little creature that kind of looks like a baby elephant mixed with an anteater, and not only because of its sentimental value. The Baku doesn't only eat nightmares. She can eat dreams, too, so the US army wants to take her, and use her to eradicate the counterculture and all of the people who don't support the Vietnam war.
To keep the cryptids safe, Lauren takes them to a "utopia," created by a woman named Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie). Her great utopian dream is a "sanctuary" they call "Cryptozoo." The plan is to eventually open to the public to get money to keep it afloat in the long run.
The cryptids would be separated into lands themed to the culture they are from, with culturally-appropriate foods in each zone. There would be guided tours every half hour, and guests would be able to purchase plush versions of every cryptid in existence. Pliny (voiced by Emily Davis), is a cryptid with no head, whose face and mouth are on his chest. There's a moment when he holds the doll version of himself, and while he seems happy to find something that looks like him, it also makes you wonder whether this place is really protective, or exploitative.
Phoebe, a Gorgon (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), questions Cryptozoo as well, musing, "It doesn't look much like a sanctuary - more like a shopping mall." Therein lies the rub. It's admirable to want to rescue these hidden creatures, but is putting them all in one place in public actually more dangerous for them? Also, Joan's inheritance can only do so much. So they need the theme park vibes to be able to keep the "sanctuary" running. But do the ends justify the means? Things get even more complicated when we discover that Joan is having a sexual relationship with one of the cryptids. He seems to genuinely care for her, but is she taking advantage?
Many fear what they don't understand - in this case, the cryptids - as evidenced by the opening scenes of this film. CRYPTOZOO's stance is "if you give them love, they will give love in return." It's a beautiful sentiment, and obvious allegory, but do they even have the right to decide who needs to be saved, and if keeping them in a zoo is helping or hurting them?
There's a lot to unpack already, but the film pivots back to the search for the Baku, which leads them to a tarot reader (voiced by Zoe Kazan). She, too, can see the "hidden world," and immediately knows they're looking for the "dream eater." She does a foreboding reading, which includes the tower, a card that tells her this search will come at a great cost.
Meanwhile, fellow cryptid hunter Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan) is hot on their trail. He wants the Baku just as badly as Lauren does. Of course, he's not there to save her. He wants the Baku so he can sell her to the armed forces as a bioweapon, not unlike Vincent D'Onofrio's character in Jurassic World. Like Lauren, Nicholas also has a team helping him, which includes a perverted faun named Gustav (voiced by Peter Storemare). We're first introduced to him as he plays the flute at an orgy. Lauren and Nicholas were both raised military, but they took very different paths from there.
Lauren wants to protect the cryptids. Nicholas, however, says, "I'm sure that with a real purpose, they'll be happier." He seems much more indoctrinated into the twisted, uncaring capitalistic society than Lauren. However, despite her good intentions, is the outcome the same, with cryptids locked up, and their freedom controlled by humans?
CRYPTOZOO is ambitious, with an animation style that took a second to get used to, but was, in the end, absolutely stunning. There is clearly layered meaning in every scene, but it also makes you wonder if director and writer Dash Shaw tried to take on too much.
At times, it feels like CRYPTOZOO is all over the place. The first twenty minutes are almost jarringly bizarre. I contemplated shutting it off, thinking perhaps this film just wasn't for me, which is fine. But a little weed allowed me to hang in there, and I am glad that I did.
The visuals are stunning, and CRYPTOZOO ponders a lot of relevant issues, especially at a time when the world feels like it's on fire. It's a film you can feel good about watching, because it stands for something - though some may find the message a bit heavy-handed. It's definitely not a chill, "let's have a beer, and watch a flick," kind of film.
In the end, while the execution was not flawless, CRYPTOZOO is a beautiful, thought-provoking film, with a stellar voice cast.
CRYPTOZOO is available via video on demand.