The Polygon entertainment team is signed up for that 2021 Sundance Film Festivalthat has gone virtual for the first time. Here’s what you need to know about the indie gems soon to find their way into streaming services, theaters, and the cinematic zeitgeist.
Logline: In a world full of mythical monsters, three women try to round up the strange creatures that have survived and bring them to a sanctuary where people can cherish them in peace. A military bounty hunter has more brutal plans for the trio.
Longer line: Dash Shaw, the comic book artist and indie animator behind the delightfully bizarre 2016 My entire high school is sinking into the ocean, comes back with Cryptozoothat is similarly stilted, wild and unpredictable. The film begins with a dreamy sex scene in which the partners Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) undress in the woods at night and dream of an ideal hippie future of world peace and equality. Almost immediately the film takes a grotesquely bloody turn. You live in an ugly world that doesn’t respect high ideals and a groovy mood. The cryptoid hunter Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) knows for sure: since childhood when a Dream-eating Japanese creature named Baku Lauren has tried to protect cryptids from capture, exploitation, and slaughter.
It’s a difficult task both because locals in places around the world tend to catch cryptids for nefarious purposes and because Lauren’s opposite number Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) follows her around the world and her finds for the U.S. military collects. He especially wants Baku because he believes it could be used to erase “the dreams of the counterculture” and end left protests for good. Lauren chases the Baku right in front of her with the help of the Gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), her aging idealistic patroness Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and the untrustworthy mercenary faun Gustav (Peter Stormare).
What is? Cryptozoo try to do? The film is nominally an adventure story with shootouts, fistfights, cryptic battles, and a quest that ends badly for a lot of people and creatures. But it also has a strong anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian stance that extends not only to the military-industrial complex but, more generally, to humanity’s relationship with animals in general. When Phoebe first sees the soon-to-be-opened Cryptozoo, the sanctuary where Joan houses dozens of curiosities, some with human intelligence, the Gorgon is deeply disappointed. She points out that it looks more like a mall than a refuge. And it does – it’s full of malls and carnival shows, and Lauren boasts that they sell toys that are modeled after every confirmed cryptid. The garish zoo may not be her ideal form of protection, but it is necessary, she says – it has to make money to feed itself.
While the Cryptozoo itself is built around that compromise between idealism and practicality, Joan is a purebred pie-in-the-sky guy whose worldview revolves around love. She has a supportive, passionate relationship with one of her cryptids and believes that the world’s problems can be solved with more of these types of connections. But they and their fellow protectors may benefit more than the cryptids. The film eventually suggests that trying to contain them is doing them no favors. Shaw recognizes Lauren’s heroism in asserting herself against the predators that see every creature and person around them in terms of profit. But even she is harshly criticized by Nick, who feels she is doing the job for both her own peace of mind and the thrill of it.
The quote that says it all: “We can only greet the strange and unusual with love. And if we show them love, they will love in return. And love will spread and envelop all beings in our diverse, wondrous world. “
Is it going there? CryptozooMorals can feel hazy with all of the actions and incidents, which is more focused on communicating the very different personalities and goals of its characters than on finding common ground between them. This makes the narrative feel more realistic than the average adventure story, but also more chaotic and prone to distractions, like a subplot about Phoebe’s upcoming marriage that doesn’t mean much. The Cryptid Protectors are not a unitary or even focused group, but rather a handful of temporary allies who don’t fully agree on methodology or purpose unless the situation becomes serial.
The pace is also very different – the first woody idyll feels like an undisturbed short story in which Matthew sits naked on the high Cryptozoo fence as just a beautiful dream image in a long series of them. But a clash between Lauren and Nick over a Russian bird-woman hybrid named alkonost feels more like an episode Hunter of the lost treasure, complete with Belloq coming in to grab the idol after Indy does all the hard work. The film oscillates between plot and dream logic and between advocating high ideals and watching people suffer when they try not to put them into practice. It’s certainly a cynical story – Shaw’s script has little faith in its heroes’ ability to save the day or in their good intentions to try.
What’s in it for us? Similar to All of my high school Sink into the seaor like any good outsider art, Cryptozoo ends up being a window into a downright non-commercial spirit and a form of storytelling that is not the practiced, elaborate committee effort emanating from animation houses like Disney and DreamWorks. It’s rare to see American animations aimed exclusively at adults, however Cryptozoo is noticeably aimed at an art-house audience – not only because of the child-unfriendly sexual and violent content, but also because of the philosophical inclination and the complicated view of the entire project.
And after generations of increasingly processed and visually polished films from these branches and others who mimick them, the rough hand-drawn feel of projects is like Cryptozoo can be shocking. It would be easy to call it ugly, but it’s more accurate to call it idiosyncratic. Certainly the images need to be examined much more closely to see where the textures of paints and pens give the images a rougher and more specific feel, or where they change from one style to another – like the difference between the raw contours of Lauren’s face and the Fineness. Lined details of Phoebe’s snake hair – give the protagonists even more visual character.
Sometimes the character moves in Cryptozoo remembers Indonesia Puppet dollswith rigid figures that move largely around the joints. Some sequences change into a completely different style, like the beautiful light show that is staged in one place by a number of sentient light beings. Nothing about where the story is going or how it gets there stylistically is self-evident. That’s one of the greatest joys of Shaw’s projects – the feeling of something new and different happening, that anti-capitalist, anti-conformist, anti-containment bias that spans all of history and also extends to every aspect of the film’s aesthetic.
The most memorable moment: Cryptozoo is full of surprising moments and weird images that creative memers could surely reuse, but the most obvious ones may come when Phoebe’s head snakes bite people. The victims are not only poisoned, their flesh revolts and warps and becomes full Akira. The image is a good setup for a “Oh no, the consequences of my own actions!” Meme.
When can we see it? Cryptozoo is looking for sales.