NOTE: This review was originally part of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Cryptozoo is available in theaters now.*
It’s the 1960s, and sketchily-drawn hippies Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera) abscond into the woods for a night of blissed-out lovemaking under the stars, only to discover a miles-high fence separating them from a place of fantastical creatures of lore. The high-as-a-kite pair are on the same wavelength most will want to be while taking in Cryptozoo, a bizarre animated action-adventure that’s like Fantastic Beasts for the Adult Swim audience.
Climbing over the obstacle and into what they think is a secret military facility, Amber and Matthew discover, instead, the titular sanctuary for mythological monsters. Their night-time tryst ends in tragic fashion, however, at the end of a unicorn’s horn. This tragic event is mere prelude to the story’s central focus, which is on the rescue of such creatures by Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), the zoo’s Indiana Jones-esque caretaker and savior of cryptids, as they are come to be known as.
A military brat all of her life, Lauren became fascinated by cryptids when as a child she encountered a baku, an elephant/pig-like creature that feeds harmlessly on dreams. Now as a strapping, muscular woman, drawn as such by animating directors Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, Lauren uses her skills to rescue other cryptids in hopes of creating a place where they can live in peace alongside humans. Lauren springs into action when she learns the baku has been spotted and that government agents are on its trail to use it as a military weapon.
The politics, in particular the allegories to race relations, are everywhere. In a way, Cryptozoo reminds of of Disney’s hit film Zootopia, on a much more adult-level scale. There’s even an allusion early on, a dream from one of the hippies, to the storming of the Capitol building. Not something the filmmakers could’ve ever predicted actually happening, mind you, but it still strikes a little too close to home.
In true buddy cop fashion, Lauren is joined on her mission by Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a Medusa-like gorgon who has her own doubts about the viability of the Cryptozoo. Their journey has them crossing paths with all sorts of wild creatures, and true to form, not all of them are altruistic. The shady Pan-esque faun Gustav (voiced by Peter Stormare) owns a brothel where humans and cryptids co-exist, a dirtied-up version of the harmony Lauren seeks for the world at large. Some cryptids resemble monsters from Greek and and Norse myth: griffins, sphinxes, and even a Midgard serpent. Others are decidedly humanoid, albeit with significant mutations, such as a boy with a face on his belly. The animation isn’t detailed enough for a broad expression of emotions, a problem that clashes with the high-level themes at play.
For the most part, this is not the kind of film I go to Sundance for, but was drawn in by the surprisingly intense action and the childlike, Wes Anderson-esque quality to the storytelling. While Cryptozoo looks like a psychedelic mind trip, and it definitely is, the message boils down simply enough to respect and kindness towards those who are different, even if they have a head full of snakes.