Without dreams, there can be no future.
Ever since childhood, Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) hoped to save cryptids. Her first encounter came while struggling to conquer a steady stream of nightmares in youth. Fate would have it that a Baku (an elephant/pig hybrid that steals dreams) happened to be nearby. It came to Lauren while she slept and sucked all the bad thoughts from her mind, ostensibly saving her life. In order to repay the favor, she dedicated her existence to helping animals and, by extension, cryptids like her savior. Joining forces with a philanthropist named Joan (Grace Zabriskie), the two created a massive complex in San Francisco known, for marketing and revenue-generating purposes, as the Cryptozoo. Half sanctuary, half tourist attraction, its mission was to normalize so-called monsters as worthy of our unconditional empathy.
Writer/director Dash Shaw‘s latest film (with Jane Samborski as animation director) is a kindred spirit to Jurassic Park in many ways as a result. Joan’s desire was to protect cryptids despite their secretive lives as legendary myth doing just fine on their own. She believed that gathering them together, domesticating those in need of it, and providing them jobs inside the park would be just what the doctor ordered as far as humanity learning to treat that which it once feared as a friend worthy of co-habitation. Commodifying them as toys and sideshows was thus a means to an end in her mind and Lauren agreed upon recognizing the alternative via a mercenary named Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan). He fancied himself a liberator too, albeit with ulterior motives.
Lauren became Joan’s boots on the ground, so to speak. She traveled the world finding new species to bring to California, imprisoning them to indoctrinate them with a purpose they believed was in their best interests. And they deluded themselves with that truth when the alternative was Nicholas enslaving them as weapons to help the government fight its war in Vietnam. He dreamed of fire-breathing dragons floating above tanks to decimate the enemy and knew the most powerful force they could wield was the very same Baku that saved Lauren so long ago. If Nicholas could cajole it into stealing the aspirations of those not onboard with America’s desires for them, he could ensure that everyone in his way was a pliable husk devoid of any free will.
Setting the film in the 1970s augments the messaging Shaw seeks to convey with flower power, over-reaching military personnel, and the misguided hubris of so-called emancipators turning those they wish to free into prisoners of a different sort. Mistrust abounds for good reason since anyone who doesn’t automatically ask those being victimized what they want isn’t as altruistically motivated as they say. When Lauren hears a young cryptid named Pliny might know where her Baku is, she attempts to leverage promises of salvation for information. Pliny’s mother knows better than to lose her advantage, though, asking to see the Cryptozoo and discover what it is they are agreeing to first. Lauren and Joan don’t understand the trepidation because they’ve never had to experience living with that same fear.
Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), an assimilated Gorgon who has tranquilized her snake hair and wears contact lenses to see without worry of turning anyone into stone, conversely has. She lets them know it too upon taking a tour of the facility and questioning what has been built. Phoebe agrees with the foundational principles of Joan’s vision, but its practice leaves a lot to be desired in much the same way regular zoos and theme parks do when it comes to the morality of ripping autonomous beings from their natural habitat to turn a profit. Whether that profit goes to their protection or not, it’s exploitation just the same. Will it be worth it in the end? Maybe. Phoebe is willing to follow their lead and find out.
More than the idea of capitalist gains and military contracts, however, the comparison to Jurassic Park also includes the chaotic inevitability for destruction that playing God demands. We see it from the start: a prologue where two hippies camping naked in the trees (Michael Cera‘s Matthew and Louisa Krause‘s Amber) find a massive fence and decide to climb it. On the other side is a beautiful unicorn, an impossible creature they cannot help themselves from wanting to see up-close. What they forget in their inherent privilege and ignorance is that they should always be the scared ones when faced with a wild creature regardless of its origins being unknown or not. Mankind has deluded itself into believing safety is implicit to cognitive superiority. That mistake creates tragic ends.
The plot itself doesn’t therefore come with many surprises. It’s a straightforward test of compassion wherein utopia must burn for its builders to understand it was never a utopia in the first place. The mix of hand-drawn and painted animation with multiple overlays (the fast-paced scenes like that of a giant snake moving through the forest with rough strokes of pigment serving as abstract trees and leaves are gorgeous) is an acquired taste considering polish is far from Shaw and company’s mind, but I’m not sure why so many say you should be stoned before watching. The colors are bright and the compositions over-stuffed, but everything is played in earnest. Cryptozoo strives for and reaches its goal. The fantastical environment merely seeks to compensate for its generic journey.
[1-3] A scene from CRYPTOZOO, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.