A 1970s-style, hand-drawn animated feature for grown-ups that thumbs its nose at capitalism sounds like date-night nirvana for a very specific subset of Americans. As someone with a mental zip code squarely inside that targeted area, it saddens me to report that Cryptozoo is a maddening blend of up-its-own-ass and on-the-nose. Featuring a genuinely upsetting amount of cartoon scrotums, the film feels like a stoner’s bonkers animal doodles set into motion with a story about how, like, owning living things is bad man.
After a prelude/prologue/porno in which half of a horny couple in the woods gets gored by a unicorn, the film introduces Lauren Gray (Lake Bell). She is a veterinarian who specializes in cryptids, which are nonsensical animals that appear to have been drawn by Napoleon Dynamite. She works for a cryptid preserve that is also designed to be a tourist trap. She bristles when a snake-haired gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) suggests that maybe those ends don’t justify the exploitive means. If you miss the point she’s making, Phoebe also has a scene where she must show her exposed breasts and butt to a douche that runs a strip club that underlines, italicizes, and bolds the “exotic” in exotic dancing.
Lauren and Phoebe are attempting to find a Baku, a dream-eating creature that looks like an elephant drawn by a child with a future spent beating up those with artistic talent. They head to Florida based on a lead from Pliny (Emily Davis), a headless cryptid with a face on his torso that sort of looks like MODOK, Krang, or Alex Jones. Before long, they’re battling overtly militaristic merchants and questioning whether they too should be ashamed of themselves too. Spoiler alert: They should!
Cryptozoo’s themes are simple enough to be Etch A Sketched. Simply tossing some genitals into a film with themes that would be remedial to toddlers doesn’t make it adult-oriented so much as it just makes it gross. Writer/director Dash Shaw also saw fit to give every character dialogue ripped from any MST3K-ed sci-fi feature. Come to think of it, watching robots mock this upsettingly pretentious bit of film school flotsam is maybe the only way to redeem it.
The biggest problem is Cryptozoo isn’t authentically weird but lazily goofy. It doesn’t feel uniquely eccentric or imaginative but oddly derivative. Instead of awe-inducing hallucinatory creatures, it goes with things like dancing gnome-elves and sentient clouds of light. Those may be weirder than anything Pixar would put on a platter, but if your goal is to get trippy with it, they feel like half-baked efforts from a fully baked creative team.
I’d always rather watch an ambitious indie misfire than a coldly calculated blockbuster precisely targeted to minimally offend. It’s why you’re reading a review of Cryptozoo and not Free Guy. But the key word is “ambitious,” and this unmotivated motion picture feels like an art class assignment turned in by someone who thought it was pure genius after a few bong rips.
Grade = D
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kristian Lin at the Fort Worth Weekly says “We know about outsider art, but is there such a thing as outsider animation? If there is, then Cryptozoo certainly belongs to that category. Hollywood could have done up this fantasia in a more polished and less interesting way, if they went in for animated movies for adults. … It’s the most affecting animated film I’ve seen so far this year.
Kristy Puchko at rogerebert.com says “Action sequences boast blood, body-horror, and sky-high battles between beasts and helicopters. And yet these animated characters do not yowl, snarl, or even speak with a smile. They talk in weary whispers or through gritted teeth, smudging every emotion into one note of drudgery. Sadly, this drags down all the bits that might be exciting, thrilling, or fun into a muck of tedium.”
Travis Hopson at Punch Drunk Critics says “[I] was drawn in by the surprisingly intense action and the childlike, Wes Anderson-esque quality to the storytelling. While Cryptozoo looks like a psychedelic mind trip, and it definitely is, the message boils down simply enough to respect and kindness towards those who are different, even if they have a head full of snakes.”