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Film Review: Cryptozoo
by Rose Finlay

Dash Shaw, USA 2020

The film opens with a young couple trespassing on a restricted area in California around the year 1970. They have sex, but shortly thereafter the man is enthralled by the sight of what appears to be a unicorn. Unfortunately for him, unicorns aren’t very friendly and the scene turns brutally violent and realistic as his partner has to deal with the trauma of her partner’s death and her own escape. You see, the couple had entered into the Cryptozoo, a safe place created by the veterinarian Lauren Grey for fantastical creatures (cryptids). She believes that cryptids are merely misunderstood and wants to protect them from a world that is becoming increasingly hostile towards their existence. Unfortunately, the US military is also interested in these creatures, in particular the Baku, whose ability to devour dreams makes it a perfect weapon against the rising threat of alternative culture.

CRYPTOZOO is one of those odd animated films which doesn’t seem to quite know which audience it is trying to play to. While it was chosen for the Generation 14plus category at the Berlinale, its sexual explicitness, violence, and utter bizarreness seems to mark it as too mature for the teen audience. At the same time, the references, themes, and artistic style are a bit too on-the-nose for the sort of complexity one hopes to see in an adult animation. Instead, the film sort of floats in this weird in-between state that it never really manages to overcome.

The animation style is an homage to the bright, psychedelic films of the era it depicts, but while they are certainly impressive, there is always some aspect of it that is too garish and crude to enjoy. That being said, it is certainly memorable even if it is not particularly pleasing on the eye. It can’t be overstated just how weird it is to experience CRYPTOZOO with its sharply contrasting tones and the dramatic visuals, but that is all to emphasize its sense of time and place, really playing into the psychedelic nature of California during the counterculture movement. While it certainly wasn’t to my particular taste, CRYPTOZOO is a wild ride and is certainly an original experience. For that reason alone, it is worth a watch, although don’t be surprised if the entire experience is a bit too out-there to really be enjoyed.