The selections at this year’s North Bend Film Festival were (as usual) pretty great, but for me, Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo was one of the biggest surprises of the fest. Full disclosure—I wasn’t really into it for the first 15 minutes. I didn’t dig the animation style and the opening sequence features two stoners who stumble up to a gigantic fence, climb it, find a unicorn, and then have the gall to touch it.
But then, we get into the story and it unfolds into something so much more magical and profound than I had expected. The animation grows more complex and detailed, taking on beautiful and deep colors. It’s a little psychedelic and a bit of an adventure story. Sometimes you really need to dig into a film to get its full impact, and this was one of those times for me. I was thrilled when my opinion started to change and I found myself getting more and more into this one.
The story follows Lauren (Lake Bell), a veterinarian turned sort of Indiana Jones who collects strange and magical lifeforms (the stuff of legend and myth) and takes them to a preserve called the Cryptozoo. The idea behind this park is that it will house and protect the cryptids, keeping them safe from the outside world. The park contains a tourist component, offering tickets to the public to come see and interact with the cryptids to allow the project to support itself. It is the first step in creating a society where cryptids and humans live side by side in harmony.
Now, anyone with eyeballs and at least a cursory understanding of history knows that such a concept is a bit beyond human nature, but Lauren believes in the cause, and knows that every cryptid that she can rescue is one less that the army can capture and turn into some sort of war machine. She can offer these creatures a life of safety and protection. The Belloq to her Indiana Jones, however, is an Army captain on a mission to capture cryptids and use them to squash the developing counterculture movement.
Lauren had her first encounter with a magical creature when she was a child. She suffered from horrible nightmares, but then one night, she was visited by a Baku. The creature ate all of her bad dreams and allowed her to at last sleep peacefully. Lauren is informed by the zoo’s owner, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), that a Baku has recently been sighted, and sends her on a journey to find it and bring it back safely.
Over the course of her journey, Laruen begins to understand that, noble though the efforts of Cryptozoo are, it’s not really the utopia it is trying to be. It’s not a big leap from the desire to protect these creatures to seeing them imprisoned and put on display for the pleasure of the human customers who frequent the park. Ultimately, this thesis statement comes across a little heavy-handed. It’s brought up at regular intervals and seems to hit the audience a lot faster than it hits the characters, so we spend a good chunk of time waiting for them to wake up and realize that good intentions or not, what they are doing is ultimately harmful.
Messaging aside, the film still carries a deep wonder about the hidden world around us. Every time we see another mythological creature on screen, we get hit with a sense of awe as we see it brought to life. The film might not hit every note it intends to, but the overall tone and feelings of enchantment are prevalent and go the extra mile in making the story feel whole.
Movie Score: 3/5
Go here to catch up on all of our coverage of the 2021 North Bend Film Fest!