“Utopias never work.”
The visually stunning new animated film “Cryptozoo“, which opened nationwide and on demand on Friday (including for a weekend at the new PMA Films, recently reopened for in-person screenings), is a strikingly beautiful case against Heaven. At least against those human-made utopias, which, as the film quite convincingly poses, are often the real monsters lurking in the dark.
And it’s in a world populated by krakens, minotaurs, giant snakes, and just about every mythological creature that the cultures of the world have ever imagined. (Here I apologize to the true believers in Portland International Cryptozoology Museum – keep looking for that tricky Bigfoot, gang.)
The film, directed by Dash Shaw and artistic host and real-life partner Jane Samborski (“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”), is itself a fable, though more grounded and giving reflect. At least as grounded and sobering as a tale featuring a dream-eating Japanese elephant creature called baku and an orgy-loving satyr voiced by Peter Stormare (of “Fargo” fame) can be.
It’s the back-and-forth between writer-director Shaw’s screenplay and the efforts of animation director Samborski that both brings us closer to and takes us away from the story. Shaw’s storyline is put together as a high-profile action flick, with the badass and cryptid-loving heroine Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell) – who has fond memories of meeting the nightmarish-devouring baku mentioned. like a child – scrambling all over the world to protect mythical creatures of all stripes. And she’s busy, as Shaw’s plot expands the “Watchmen” model of “What If Superheroes Exist In The Real World” to include everything from mischievous Polish gremlins to South American will-wisps to this that Gray grimly tells us to be the very last unicorn and pegasus in existence.
In this America of the late 1960s, Grey’s goal is to recover as many scattered and elusive mythical monsters, relocating them to the titular “cryptozoo” of his wealthy mentor Joan, where they will be safe from predation. of a US government of the Nixon era. Owned by its own expert in cryptid hunting, Nick (“Henry Fool’s” Thomas Jay Ryan), the government naturally sets out to track down these magical beasts to harness their extraordinary powers for military purposes, in particular the baku, whose ability to eliminate the dreams that he considers as determining to aspire the life of the counter-culture.
It’s a setup that I could see fueling a number of average CGI fantasy movies and, honestly, that’s most of what âCryptozooâ would be without the efforts of host Samborski. Flooded with visual contrasts, the film’s palette mixes as many idiosyncratic animation styles and tricks as there are creatures in Joan’s sprawling, EPCOT-like theme park. Bold slabs in stylized color are reminiscent of the hippie psychedelia of “Yellow Submarine”, while the realistic eroticism comes straight from the 1973 French animated fable “Fantastic Planet”. There are cutouts by Terry Gilliam and central figures rendered as pencil and watercolor sketches, all brought to life with a sensibility that is both dreamy and precise. It’s an expressionist visual feast that, linked to Shaw’s action beats and the deadpan deliveries of the awe-inspiring vocal cast, creates something endlessly eerie. Even though the story and the messages of the film play out a bit prosaically.
“Cryptozoo” deconstructs the seemingly hard-wired black-and-white morality in its story of dreamers versus warmongers. While Nick and his soldiers are undeniably thugs in their quest to turn the world’s magic into weapons, the film is really about its heroine realizing that magic – even with the best human intentions – is just as destructive. There is more than a little “Jurassic Park” to the inevitable downfall of the cryptozoo, with Grey’s protests that humanity’s acceptance of otherness must come with tourist-friendly merchandising and “protection.” condescendingly falling on the skeptical ears of her snake-headed Gorgon sidekick, whose quest for assimilation sees her donning a wig and contact lenses. Indeed, the film opens with an unexpected bloody setup straight out of a horror movie, as a pair of hippie lovers stumble over the high walls of the cryptozoo while searching for a place to have sex. . Both their playful eroticism and the shocking violence of their discovery over the wall see the film announce its adult tone and its themes of the violence inherent in colonization.
If there’s one hit I have about “Cryptozoo”, it’s that Shaw grafted his magical world onto a simple genre tale I’ve seen before. (Think of âGrimmâ TVs and Maine’s set âOnce Upon a Time,â as well as Netflix’s ill-begotten âBrightâ.) Still, there is a tendency for independent animated fables to get lost in their own aesthetic, and I enjoyed that, for all its strangeness, “Cryptozoo” clearly sets the rules for its world, and then plays with them. Still, worthy of a film that stirs the imagination, the most effective and touching moments of âCryptozooâ come when there is poetry and ambiguity in the nibbling around the bangs.
Openly mean military types aside, the characters in the film are most convincing when confronting their own blind spots and preconceptions. The young lover of the beginning – who commits an act as unthinkable as it is foreseeable – drags her guilt through the film (with the bloody pledge of her crime). When panicked soldiers ask her at gunpoint if she, unlike the myriad of creatures in the ruined zoo, is human, her “Yes!” is heart-wrenching eloquence. And the philanthropic heiress Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie of “Twin Peaks”) clings to her dream of protecting the wonders of the world until the tragic end, only ever acknowledging her undeniable love for her burdens (including the Bigfoot-like beast she takes for her bed) stems from a paternalism at odds with her lofty goals.
Ultimately, the monsters of “Cryptozoo” must, inevitably, return to the myths that spawned them, their ineffable and mysterious existences released into legend, myth and the corners of our eye. The film’s myth-making is, on its own, perhaps less mysterious to turn into a (truly entertaining) action-fantasy film, but its fleeting glimpses of the dark and convoluted puzzles of the human heart make it an experience. strange and often fascinating in the cinema.
“Cryptozoo” can be distributed everywhere. For locations, tickets and more information, check out the film website. âCryptozooâ is 93 minutes long and is rated R for nudity, violence, and general arousal.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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