“We can only greet the strange and unusual with love.” This is ostensibly what film-makers Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski want to assert in Cryptozoo. For about thirty minutes, they deliver on this promise. Moreover, they do so in a resplendent visual style wholly committed to exploring the possibilities of animation. From the opening shots, the colours and compositions strikingly render their authorial vision. However, visual pleasure does nothing to turn attention away from the plodding, perfunctory plot which ultimately reveals a dearth of ideas.
Lauren Grey (Lake Bell) travels the world in search of captive cryptids. These, an opening title tells us, are animals whose existence are disputed or unsubstantiated. Simply put, they are mythological creatures. She frees these animals on behalf of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary founded by Joan (Grace Zabriskie). Here cryptids are protected from the outside world, insofar as they are not feared and hunted. Rather, they are put on display and to work in the shops that will eventually pay the bills to keep the Cryptozoo open.
Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a Gorgon who teams up with Lauren, is troubled by the obvious exploitation inherent in saving cryptids only to put them to work. The natural and supernatural co-exist, opening the latter to the exploitation accepted as normal by the former. We may then read the film as an anti-capitalist fable. This is evidently part of what the filmmakers have in mind.
The bad guys are the military-industrial complex, represented in the film by Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan). Like Lauren, he is searching for the Baku, a creature which feeds on dreams. As a child, Lauren, who grew up on the US military base on Okinawa, would have nightmares of nuclear annihilation. These are rendered in an exquisite black and white sequence, one of the many noteworthy images peppered throughout the film.
The Baku visits her and eats the nightmare. The atom bomb, harnessing natural forces to devastating effect. Nick hunts cryptids so they can be put to use as biological weapons – that is, to harness the supernatural to devastating effect. This is the cat and mouse the film sets up. It is, in a word, rote. When Nick, towards the climax of the film, monologues to Lauren that “we’re not so different,” I expected Lauren to snap back with something akin to: “they belong in a museum.”
If what follows reads like a spoiler, I assure you that all of this is laid out quite early and quickly abandoned. The Baku is the MacGuffin that moves us towards the finale. What Lauren and Nick want is completely forgotten in a final act that has nothing to do with the ideas put forward in the opening third of the film. The military wants the Baku to eat the dreams of the counterculture. “Without dreams there can be no future.” It is in this that the filmmakers display their own lack of dreams.
The setting of the film is 1967. This has little to do with anything in the film, other than as a backdrop on which to hang a few passably psychedelic images. Likewise, it allows the filmmakers to play with recognisable symbols, rendered mute by the passage of time, of state power and countercultural resistance. I found myself asking a single question: Can we not imagine – can we not dream – a contemporary resistance?
The film opens with a couple frolicking in the woods; human figures stripped naked under a night sky on which constellations are drawn. Matthew (Michael Cera) recounts a dream he had wherein we protest in the capital and establish a free and equal country. This is the type of dream Nick wants the Baku to eat. The only problem is it’s only that, a dream. There is no action suggested by the countercultural ideals espoused throughout the film. It is safe to employ these images and ideas because, having failed, they pose no threat to the status quo. The dreams of the counterculture gave way to the neo-liberal world we now inhabit. However, in cinematic terms, we read this as progressive, despite its complete lack of teeth.
The film briefly plays with this in the person of Phoebe who, in witnessing the crass commercialisation of the Cryptozoo, sees not a sanctuary but a shopping centre. Lauren assures her that cryptids and humans can work together in securing the freedom of both. What Phoebe recognises is that cryptids would be working to secure their own industrial exploitation. The Cryptozoo sells toys of all known cryptids. Even you can sell miniature reproductions of yourself, Lauren essentially suggests. This is the type of compromise with which we’ve become comfortable. Rather than imagining a resistance overturning our familiar, exploitative social arrangements, we can only imagine a world where we more fairly participate in our own exploitation and the exploitation of others.
Despite evoking the counterculture, all this talk of dreams and resistance is just set dressing for the animation. There’s no doubt that Cryptozoo is visually stunning. A lot of imagination went into drawing the world of the film and the mythological creatures that populate it. However, that is as far as the imagination goes.
It all looks great, sets up a few interesting ideas, then abandons these in the paint-by-numbers narrative. Rather than posing challenging questions about how we live in the world and with others, Cryptozoo is content to crash a helicopter or two and moralise along familiar lines.