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Cryptozoo’s stunning animation isn’t enough to save it from a meandering story

A menagerie of fantastical beasts

Cryptozoo.
Photo: Sundance Institute.

Like most recent events, the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival has shifted from an in-person showcase to a virtual one. Despite the change, we’ll still be bringing you reviews on the most interesting experiences we find, from indie films to VR experiments.

Halfway through Cryptozoo, a hypnotizing and beautiful animated film about classic cryptid creatures, the somewhat meandering story becomes apparent. And it’s distracting.

Dash Shaw’s latest feature takes place in a fictional world where cryptids — mythical creatures like the kraken, Loch Ness monster, and Bigfoot — are feared and hunted by humans. In an effort to try to protect the creatures from being killed, two people operate a sanctuary that keeps cryptids safe. Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell) and Joan (Grace Zabriskie) make it their lifelong duty to ensure each known cryptid is brought to the sanctuary, protecting them from militant hunters like Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan).

The story centers on Lauren’s quest to find the Baku, a dream-eating creature who helped her when she was a child, but Nick and his team want to capture the Baku because he believes it will finally stop left-wing protests. Their fight will bring them back to Cryptozoo and lead to realizations about trying to keep a group of hunted individuals safe by removing them from society and keeping them behind glass.

If the messaging sounds heavy-handed, that’s because it is. Cryptozoo never lets up on its inherently positive but maladroit ideas: animals should not be mistreated, cages inherently do more harm than good, and capitalism is bad. Messaging is used in place of building a foundation for emotional storytelling and characters to care about. That only works for so long; gorgeous animated sequences interwoven with powerful messaging create small bursts of emotional impact, but the film feels like it’s muddling from one beat to the next until the final half hour, which transforms into an exciting, action-packed sequence.

Normally, a movie about cryptids can exist simply on arresting imagery and / or chaotic action sequences and violence. The very nature of cryptids means exploring stories of beastly creatures and learning about the beautiful mythology they innately encompass. Cryptozoo’s creatures are sympathetic to outsiders, caught trying to live a peaceful life and escape those who hate them for how they look or want to exploit them to feed a capitalist machine. This is when Cryptozoo is at its best: trying to showcase how good-hearted people can sometimes get caught up in the same machine. The sanctuary will have hot dog booths, merchandise, stores, and sell tickets to ensure everything can remain running. The very nature of trying to make cryptids feel normal and protected leads them to feeling imprisoned and gawked at.

This doesn’t save the film from its weaker moments, though. Cryptozoo is frustrating because the ingredients are all there, but the end result is dry and empty. Its messaging is reliant on people caring about the Baku, about Joan and Lauren’s mission, about the various cryptids who join the mission along the way. Shaw tries to spend enough time with each cryptid, but they often feel forgettable and secondary to Lauren’s overall emotional arc. For a movie about how cryptids aren’t seen enough by humans for who they really are, I wish the movie spent more time on building up their own stories.