Wild, animated film ‘Cryptozoo’ goes down a wandering path

Comic book artist Dash Shaw's buzzy new movie is adventurous but disjointed

Brad Keefe
"Cryptozoo"

Sometimes a movie is so audacious and original, I have a hard time pulling back to ask, “Is this actually… good?”

In early 2021, I was able to virtually attend the Sundance Film Festival, and one of the buzzier premieres seemed very much down my alley.

“Cryptozoo” is an animated film aimed squarely at adults. Reactions out of early screenings indicated it was a mind-melter, a wild societal and ecological commentary, which sounded like my cup of tea.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do it for me, though your mileage may vary. I will give it this: “Cryptozoo” has one of the most memorable opening scenes in recent memory. Mild spoilers ahead.

The movie is set in the 1960s and opens with a young hippie couple named Matthew and Amber (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) walking through a wooded area at night.

They make love by a fire. Matthew smokes a joint and waxes rhapsodic about a utopian dream he had. Then they discover a massive metal fence extending far into the air. They climb the fence and discover … a unicorn. Matthew gently approaches it. Things escalate quickly.

Spoiler: In the first five minutes of this movie, you’ll hear Michael Cera sex noises and see his character get violently gored to death by a unicorn.

So, yes, “Cryptozoo” had my attention early.

Amber discovers she’s in a pseudo zoo where a wide array of mythical beasts (collectively “cryptids”) are housed in cages. We meet Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a cryptid hunter who has dedicated her life to the protection and conservation of these creatures.

Of course, greedy interests enter the chat. Welcome to… Jurassic Park.

Comic book artist Dash Shaw wrote and directed this hand-drawn animated film, and its psychedelic storybook style is entrancing for a while.

After that opening hook, I didn’t know what to expect, but I know I didn’t expect the kind of "Tomb Raider" adventure centered around Lake Bell’s Lauren, who becomes a vehicle for Shaw to explore themes around humanity's tendency to exploit nature and fear the unknown. A variety of cryptids add empathy (and weirdness) to the film.

But the plot is at times as herky-jerky as the lower framerate animation style. “Cryptozoo” is an often disjointed affair with an air of self-seriousness that seems disconnected from its bizarre nature.

Visually, “Cryptozoo” has a feel reminiscent of René Laloux’s 1973 “Fantastic Planet” and perhaps a bit of “Heavy Metal” in its more action-oriented moments. I found it more eye-popping than mind-blowing.

That said, many others find it visionary, and it's certainly the most adventurous pick at theaters this weekend.

For most audiences, let me extend another heartfelt recommendation for “CODA,” which is also opening at the Gateway Film Center this weekend.

“Cryptozoo”

Now playing at the Gateway Film Center

2 stars out of 5