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Review: The animated ‘Cryptozoo’ is a sexy, political, wildly imagined beast of a movie

A scene from the movie "Cryptozoo."
(Magnolia Pictures)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

“Cryptozoo” has, in more than one sense, the horniest opening scene of any movie this year: It begins with a star-gazing hippie couple making love in a forest and ends with one of them getting gored by a unicorn. Like the rest of Dash Shaw’s eccentric and imaginative animated feature, the sex and violence are rendered in pencil-sketch lines and vibrant colors, which doesn’t blunt so much as heighten their strange, fleshy intensity. It’s the ’60s, man, or at least some super-psychedelic alternative version of it, populated by hand-drawn Krakens, Pegasi, hydras, giant worms and various other fantastical creatures collectively known as “cryptids” — a mind-boggling bestiary to rival Noah’s Ark in scope if not in number.

Speaking of the Old Testament: There’s an unmistakably Edenic quality to that prologue, wherein two naked lovers gaze upon the wonders of creation before tragically falling from grace. But the secret refuge into which our stoned-out Adam and Eve (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) have stumbled is no God-breathed paradise. This is the Cryptozoo, a man-made theme park designed as a sanctuary for cryptids — a high-minded enterprise that doubles, conveniently, as a commercial one. Here, the park’s keepers insist, these rare and remarkable creatures will be safe from the human killers and traffickers who hunt them. But since they’ll also be held in enclosures, put on public display and marketed as plush toys and other forms of merchandise, their liberation may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Shaw, who also wrote and directed the lo-fi disaster movie “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” (2016), has a flair for outlandish spectacle and an impish, knowingly juvenile sense of humor. His second feature — made, like the first, in close collaboration with the animation director Jane Samborski — is more refined in its style and more ambitious in its aims. “Cryptozoo,” which won a prize for innovation at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, sometimes brings to mind a precocious student’s composition notebook in which angry scribblings on ’60s history and politics alternate with elaborate doodles from “Yellow Submarine” and “Fantastic Planet.” Page by page, frame by frame, it seeks to cultivate your wonder and awaken your outrage, to spin a work of unbridled fantasy into a depressingly relevant critique of human callousness and greed in any era.

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Three women walk in front of a landscape with trees.
Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) and Joan (Grace Zabriskie) are on a mission in the movie “Cryptozoo.”
(Magnolia Pictures)

Its most obvious target is the U.S. military-industrial complex, which is bent on turning the cryptids into weapons of warfare — none more valuable than the baku, a gentle, elephant-like beast of Japanese folkloric origin that has the ability to feed on people’s dreams. With a baku at their disposal, the script’s fuzzy logic goes, the military could obliterate the dreams of the entire ’60s counterculture with their pesky Vietnam War protests and other subversive activities. But the movie proves equally critical of that counterculture and its own delusions and pieties, and it casts a skeptical eye at any characters who might fancy themselves on the right side of history.

Chief among these is Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a tough, intrepid explorer and sworn protector of cryptids the world over. Like her benevolent mentor, Joan (a warm Grace Zabriskie), Lauren believes firmly in the Cryptozoo and its mission. But they are challenged on these and other fronts by Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a powerful Gorgon who joins their baku-seeking mission.

A scene from the movie "Cryptozoo."
(Magnolia Pictures)

Phoebe, a humanoid cryptid and perhaps the movie’s most fascinating creation, goes to great lengths to keep her lethal hair-snakes and stony gaze under wraps. Her attempts to blend in with human society while also advocating for cryptid rights is one of a few wrinkles that bring this story of rampant otherization into “X-Men” territory, even as the zoo itself harks back to “Jurassic Park” and other cautionary tales about messing with Mother Nature. But if “Cryptozoo” sometimes reminds you of those Hollywood touchstones, it also mounts something of a corrective to them with its trippy pop-art style, its forthright feminism and uninhibited sexuality (one interspecies seduction is straight out of “The Shape of Water”), and its implicit skepticism of mass-appeal capitalist enterprises.

Not that the movie’s endgame — a bloody, fiery spectacle of destruction that suggests the Revelations to that prologue’s Genesis — would be entirely out of place in most Hollywood blockbusters, give or take a lot of CGI. At times you might wish that “Cryptozoo” were even more narratively adventurous and unhinged, that its neatly plotted story was as experimentally inclined as its visuals, which sometimes judder like a flipbook and sometimes turn deliriously kaleidoscopic. For all its gestures at moral ambiguity, Shaw’s script is a mostly blunt, simple, declamatory affair. Even the less predictable characters — like a wily faun, Gustav (Peter Stormare), who runs an underground sex club and sells out his fellow cryptids on the black market — are used to fairly predictable ends.

What it leaves you with is a grim reminder that human beings can’t help but exploit, corrupt and harm everything they touch, even under the guise of advocacy and stewardship. That’s a fairly obvious lesson, but also a hard one to argue with. If humanity and all its works are the problem, I confess I wouldn’t mind seeing the human-free, all-cryptid version of this movie, one that allowed Shaw’s creations to rule the screen in all their winged, furry and scaly glory. Triumph, disaster or something in between, it would require us to do what even the best-intentioned human characters here cannot: approach the cryptids on their terms, not ours.

‘Cryptozoo’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 20, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles; also available on digital and VOD

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