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Cryptozoo
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by Jay Seaver

"Indie animation that also works as a fantasy adventure."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021: Is it awful to watch a distinctive piece of independent animation and think that you'd like to see the big mainstream blockbuster version, or maybe just a conventional anime from the same script? Understand, I wouldn't trade this "Cryptozoo" for another, but filmmaker Dash Shaw's style isn't for everyone, even though the movie underneath is the sort of fantasy adventure that an audience would easily go for, if the style was a little more familiar.

It opens with a young couple in the woods in 1967, smoking and screwing, and then coming upon a massive fence. Matthew (voice of Michael Cera) and Amber (voice of Louisa Krause) climb in and discover a unicorn and a midway, but the encounter doesn't go as one would hope. Elsewhere, Dr. Lauren Gray (voice of Lake Bell) has followed the trail of another rare cryptid to the Soviet Union and hedonistic faun Gustav (voice of Peter Stormare), though nemesis Nicholas (voice of Thomas Jay Ryan) is not far behind. With Lauren injured in the fallout, the institute's founder Joan (voice of Grace Zabriskie) assigns her a partner for her next mission; Phoebe (voice of Angeliki Papoulia) is a Gorgon who wears contacts and keeps her snakes under a kerchief and tranquilized so that she can live among non-cryptids. Their goal is to find a baku that has escaped from U.S. Army confinement; the dream-eating yokai had eased Lauren's nightmares as a kid on an Okinawa army base, while Joan fears the establishment could use it to erase the ambitions of the counterculture.

It's not unusual, at this point, to talk about how Shaw has other things than just the plot on his mind or how this is all a jumping-off point for exploring something interior, and that's what makes this different than something Disney or DreamWorks would produce, Cryptozoo works in large part because it's a darn good adventure movie, putting Lauren and Phoebe in constant pickles and taking them seriously, using a first trip to the zoo to set things up that will pay off in the climax, keeping things moving and seldom putting itself above an audience looking for creatures and mayhem, and not clutching pears at some nudity and gore. There's little ironic detachment to its action, which may sometimes be super-stylized but is also intense. Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski give it solid genre foundations that allow them to digress at times or get absurd, because this is too important to the characters to leave the story behind.

That does mean it's occasionally a bit wobbly when that story conflicts with the other things Shaw and his team have on their minds. Phoebe, Lauren, and the rest are smart enough to recognize that Joan's Cryptozoo is well-intentioned but problematic, the sort of thing that lets privileged people have helped a little but doesn't actually give the folks they're helping much agency about it (or at least be open to seeing that point of view), and if the comments along those lines are kind of on the nose at times in terms of pointing out, it's conversations that sound awkward in a familiar way, even if a satisfying resolution is hemmed in by the film being a period piece.

The visual style makes the film period in a fairly noteworthy way, in that Shaw's art has a bit of the underground "comix" of the 1960s and 1970s to it, though maybe more in general style than draftsmanship. The film has some everyday ugliness, aggressive nudity, trippy bits that can seem more an end to themselves than something revelatory, and a fondness for distortion and overloading the background to the point where it can swallow the action. The way it literalizes a scene where someone gets a tarot reading is the same kind of wrecking-ball approach to storytelling. The style does interesting work in placing Cryptozoo in this specific period and mindset - it's of this world and carries the same sort of blended cynicism and idealism - but it's often kind of off-putting in the same way underground comics can be.

It's also got the sort of voice cast that might be better off swapped out for either celebrities where the audience immediately associates something with the voices, or voice-over artists who know the medium and what it demands better. Nobody here is bad, but it's kind of interesting how Angeliki Papoulia's voice work winds up the most memorable once all is said and done - Phoebe has the most meaningful design, visually - a monster hidden underneath her desire to be be part of a more social world - and Papoulia shifting how she talks to match what's going on with what the audience can see makes both sides of the performance more effective. Mostly, though, the voice cast is relatively naturalistic actors working with a relatively static design, and it's sometimes a rough combination.

Which is how one's mind can wander in the direction of wondering what this script would be like with a lot of money, performance capture, and familiar style thrown at it. Odds are it wouldn't be quite as strong - Shaw and a tight team are by and large able to pull in the same direction and make it work in a way that five visual effects houses might now - but "Cryptozoo" is good enough that I wish it were a little easier to recommend to people who generally don't like "things like 'Cryptozoo'".

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33975&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/31/21 04:40:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  20-Aug-2021

UK
  N/A

Australia
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Directed by
  Dash Shaw

Written by
  Dash Shaw

Cast
  Lake Bell
  Jason Schwartzman
  Michael Cera
  Grace Zabriskie
  Louisa Krause
  Angeliki Papoulia



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