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Photo courtesy Calgary Underground Film Festival

CUFF 2021 Reviews: Cryptozoo film and panel discussion

By Rachneet Randhawa, May 14 2021

The film Cryptozoo (2021) is an American animated drama written, directed and animated by Dash Shaw and follows the storyline of Crypto zookeepers who have captured a Baku, a dream eating creature of legend, and wonder if they should display these beasts to the world or keep them hidden and unknown. This is the first Canadian film festival to showcase the film and features the voice talents of Lake Bell, Zoe Kazan, Michael Cera, Louisa Krause, Peter Stomare, Thomas Jay Ryan and Grace Zabriskie. 

Cryptozoo is a fantastical and bizarrely beloved fable about a zoo that rescues mythological creatures in psychedelic 1960s San Francisco. The premises of the narrative centres around creatures known as “cryptids” — mysterious or monster-like creatures — that are misfits of sorts and dwell on the fringes of society. Fun fact, cryptozoology is an actual academic discipline being the study of animals that are rumoured to exist like Sasquatch or Loch Ness Monster! The opening scene begins with a stoned couple rambling on about revolutions in which they haphazardly stumble upon a tall fence and climb it. They do this without realizing they have officially entered the grounds of the Cryptozoo only to discover a hybrid unicorn-like creature basking in the sunlight. And from there the story begins.

The main protagonist, Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), is a military brat from Okinawa and has dedicated her life to saving the cryptids who are hunted and trafficked by poachers to be sold off on the black market due to their unique powers or abilities. The key cryptid is a Japanese supernatural being called Baku, an orange pig-like creature with the trunk of an elephant. Baku is a prized possession by undercover government officials who want to steal it to wipe the memories of the counterculture movement in the USA and suppress the anti-Vietnam War movement. Their sole purpose is to allow capitalism to dominate. Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who is the Cryptozoo founder and protector of all cryptids, sends Lauren and Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a human gorgon who disguises her medusa hair to avoid turning people to stone, on assignment to save Baku. Alongside Lauren’s allies, we come across the controversial and stigmatized idea of keeping cryptids in an amusement park like circus freaks, ogled by onlookers and commercialized by carnival rides and fun merchandise. They question whether this will retract human fear and judgement and allow for tolerance and whether their existence as beast-like creatures will be validated by mainstream society. 

The goal of the Cryptozoo is to achieve integration over assimilation for the cryptids. The mission is to offer a utopia refuge for cryptids. But first, they must save the rare Baku. Yet they continue to be derailed by the villains of the story — that being the US military. Their quest to find Baku is trailed by Sergeant Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Gustav (Peter Stormare), a centaur who playfully plays his pan flute at his sensual gatherings. The climax of the story is of course when all hell breaks loose, literally, with the strife and struggle of the mission reaching its peak when cryptids escape the zoo. In all the chaos and confusion resulting from the violent conflict and oh-so-much bloodshed galore we retrace back to the core of the story which holds both a political and environmental message — wild creatures are best off free and should not be powered over and controlled as humans have assumed with mother nature. 

This film is a psychedelic euphemism thrill ride and a funhouse mirror featuring a diverse set of hybrid animals. It feels like a combination of Pokemon meets World of Warcraft meets something out of The Chronicles of Narnia and Studio Ghibli altogether — a unique blend of perspective with an appreciation for animation. Everything from griffins, manticores, chimeras, dragon-like tarrasques, dryads and krakens, Japanese bird-man tengus and Polish trickster sprites — you name it there is something for everyone. 

Cryptozoo was an official selection for the 2021 Sundance film festival and was the winner of the Next Innovator Prize. It is set to officially release on August 20, 2021. If you are an avid fan and enthusiastic about animation alike, you would enjoy this film as with the sheer breadth of the film there is a cryptid fan favourite for everyone.

Cryptozoo filmmaker Q & A panel

In the virtual live panel featuring director, writer and animator Dash Shaw and director of animation Jane Samborski, they spoke about the breadth required to make a curated animated piece. Samborski said it’s all about visual language and how a small project usually unfolds where everyone wears a lot of hats. The challenge lies in taking disparate pieces and doing a final polish to make everything cohesive because there are a lot of different voices. Shaw also mentioned they wanted to make something more complicated like an art disaster film. They aimed to give each character an in-depth and subtle back story without giving too much away. The whole aim was to make it diverse with so many different characters but done in an idiosyncratic lofi way. 

When asked how they designed the Cryptozoo world, Shaw referred to Andrew Lorenzu who deserves credit for designing the zoo map — a particular map with all the cryptids from specific mythologies and storefronts on the main boardwalk. But mostly the approach they took was to cast a lot of different artists and tell them to run with their ideas. When collaborating with other animators the biggest strength of the film was problem-solving. The more they struggled on certain concepts, this ended up giving the film a lot of its life. So basically these miscommunications ended up working to their advantage. Shaw compared this to newspaper comic strips and how they have remained relevant for so long. They have an inventive quality to the language as a playful medium and are trying to communicate something just beyond their abilities, especially for such complex topics. 

When it came to their work-personality types, Samborski claims she was the more black and white, right and wrong type and cared mostly about correct animation and anatomy. However, Shaw was a freer and inventive person. For the cryptid drawings themselves and the challenges they faced in bringing them to life on screen, Samborski mentioned that everything had to be run through her hand she had to feel the need for it to be real to animate. She described it as a constant push and pull between her different impulses. For instance, the horses were a nightmare to draw, especially the Cerberus. To have a body that moves that has multiple heads is difficult, but the Chinese dragon was the most enjoyable to draw as it displayed the technical underpinnings of how that cryptid was put together and was exciting to figure it out.

For Shaw, his favourite drawing was the Baku because not only was it the hardest, but the most important one and they ran through a lot of tests, making it a long process. But the question is, where exactly did the theme of Baku’s story come from? Shaw claims Baku was inspired by a drawing from 1815 and an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku. So he knew about that creature and it felt like an idea for a movie, as an animated film can create a dream state where you are inside the rhythms of that dark space.

When it came to the moral of the story, as the commentator posed the question, there were very conflicting worldviews and wondered if this was intentional. Shaw said he used to work at the New York Public Library and there they were researching counter-cultural newspapers from the ’60s from all over the world. They all had this season of very real optimism and this art nouveau and art quality that stood out. Not only did it inspire the plot of the Cryptozoo film but it also explains the role modern history played and where we are now and that tradeoff between realism and pessimism. For instance, near the end of the film, Shaw mentions you have the woman who ends up destroying the zoo versus the woman who created the zoo — a collage of different perspectives and attitudes.

From Samborski’s point of view, she claims each of the characters has something to say they want from the magical world and each expects something in return as they all have hopes and dreams. Shaw tags on referring to the awesome action scenes of amazing creatures in the latter half in which the character’s personalities seep in with a flair of Shaw’s melancholy bent as a composer.

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