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► Cryptozoo is available to stream on Mubi now 

Look past its high concept action-fantasy plot and there’s a solemnity to Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo. It’s a rare beast, an independently made, handcrafted animation, which treats its outlandish narrative and often absurd world with total sincerity, never winking to the camera with a knowing smirk, never acknowledging its occasional silliness.

Rare beasts, too, are its subject. Cryptids (defined by the film’s opening title-card as animals “whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated”), all drawn from existing mythology, tentatively coexist with humans by staying hidden and out of their way. The Cryptozoo – founded by Joan, a wealthy, grey-haired woman with a compassionate but fetishistic attitude towards animal welfare – wants to save the cryptids from obscurity and, possibly, extinction by offering them sanctuary in a secure San Francisco compound. The US government wants control of the cryptids, many of which possess powerful and potentially weaponisable abilities, in order to use them to crack down on countercultural dreams of a more just society – this is 1967, when such tensions were nearing a peak.

This robust plot recalls the by-numbers action movies of the 60s, as do the main characters who, however wildly imaginative their outsides may be, have personalities that fit familiar stereotypes: idealistic protagonist Lauren, an environmental activist who works for Joan as a cryptozookeeper; her more cynical sidekick Phoebe, a snake-haired gorgon who wears contact lenses so that her eyes don’t turn people to stone; antagonist Nick, a meat-headed, fascistic military man who is never seen without a pistol in hand; and his sleazy assistant Gustav, a faun with a dirty laugh who we first meet during an orgy. These duos represent the two sides of this good-versus-evil battle, while Phoebe and Gustav’s characters can be also read as a broad metaphor for the ways that minorities could assimilate into power structures at the time (Phoebe by ‘passing’ as human, Gustav by becoming a ‘traitor’ and siding with the enemy).

Cryptozoo (2021)
Cryptozoo (2021): Release the beasts

A theme park-style map introduces the Cryptozoo and presents it as a cryptid Disneyland, with quadrants themed for different parts of the world, each with its own culturally appropriate cuisine. Central to the animal sanctuary is a large shopping district, where plush toys of various creatures are on sale – saving cryptids may be the aim, but it has to be done in a financially sustainable way. This sequence criticises capitalism pointedly if without sophistication: profits skew the project’s original goals, and the natural beauty of these sometimes strange, sometimes familiar animals is rounded off into safe and cuddly collectables. No such risk with Samborski’s cryptid designs, which stay faithful to historical folk renderings; the first that we see is a unicorn indistinguishable from an ordinary, brown-haired horse, aside from the pearlescent glint of its horn.

The cryptid most obsessively sought by both Lauren and Nick is a ‘baku’, a gentle creature of soft oranges and blues that looks like a pig-sized elephant, native to Japan and known for feeding on human dreams via its trunk. As a child living on a base in Okinawa post-WWII, Lauren was visited by the baku, which rid her of nightmares of nuclear war – like all of the dream sequences in Cryptozoo, this is animated in a swirling, kaleidoscopic design, but unlike others’ bright, multicoloured fantasies, Lauren’s visions are pencilled sketches in shades of grey. Nick dreams of military glory – we see shimmering images of him riding a winged white horse with a grenade in his hand – and hopes that the baku can assist by sucking out the hopes and ambitions of his counterculture enemies. “Without dreams, there could be no future,” says Joan in a moment of exposition, her words complemented by one of the film’s most persuasive metaphors, as black holes begin to appear in the dream-film, eventually fading into white, like a burning reel of celluloid.

The dream sequences are some of the most beautifully animated moments of a film in which expressionistic use of colour continually bleeds into reality. In this jetsetting adventure, which follows Lauren from Japan to the USSR and across the US, each location has a distinct, mood-setting palette. The Russian mountains are a landscape of abstractly employed pastel tones, with a rainbow of soft lines representing a waterfall; a trip to Florida is characterised by glittering, sand-coloured water and lurid swatches of purple, orange and green for buildings; and small-town Kentucky is all cool, deep sunset purples. Excellent, lifelike sound design adds realistic texture to the environments; John Carroll Kirby’s dreamy score of folksy guitars and pan pipes and calm yet propulsive synth bass completes the soundscape.

Cryptozoo (2021)
Cryptozoo (2021)

There’s a consistency to the characters, all painted in natural watercolour tones (except the monochrome of gorgon Phoebe), which separates them from their stylistically mutating surroundings. When, late on in the film, Lauren dives into the Cryptozoo’s central lake to rescue the baku from a downed helicopter, the frame is drowned in water that is an aggressive, vibrant red, punctured by scrapes of white, yellow and black. Yet her pale pink skin stays politely as it is, unaffected by the emotional potency of the background design. It’s a missed opportunity, perhaps caused by the parcelling out of the design process to various artists. In the rare moments where the hues and textures of the background are matched by complementary colouration of the moving figures, it’s clear how much more beautiful the film could have been.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that beauty wasn’t a goal for the filmmakers. In the film’s opening scene, the aforementioned unicorn is stumbled upon by an amorous hippie couple and bludgeoned to death, and there’s a nihilistic tendency in Nick’s trigger-happy hatred of cryptids, which brings a couple of species to extinction.

As the film continues, the Cryptozoo transforms from liberal capitalist utopia into hellish vision of nature’s vengeance, the good-versus-evil morality tale having become a battle in which no humans end up on the right side. Its coda can be reduced to a simple ‘Leave nature alone.’ So, there’s a clever irony to the fact that one of the characters who makes it to the other side of this apocalyptic ordeal is seen with her new pet, a black and white Great Dane – which, incidentally, looks utterly alien after 90 minutes of mythical creatures. Her canine companion is of a strain selectively bred to hunt. Is the domestication of this species any different to what the military were attempting to do with cryptids?

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Originally published: 29 October 2021