Dash Shaw’s adult animated feature Cryptozoo is a visually dazzling if somewhat familiar tale of the risks and ethical challenges of intervening in, managing and preserving wildlife. In this case, though, the wildlife are not merely endangered: they’re often unique, mythological beings ranging from a unicorn to a South American mega worm, stone chucking fairies to a Japanese dream-eating baku. They’re cryptids, that is, defined in an opening title as animals whose existence is “disputed or unsubstantiated.” But apart from Matt and Amber, the two groovy, hippie kids (the film is set in the ’60s) who bumble their way into the Cryptozoo in the opening sequence, it isn’t disbelief that endangers the cryptids, that denies them consideration as living beings with agency and potentially rights. Quite the opposite, actually. In a period of great turmoil and war (Matt presciently recounts a dream of progressives storming the U.S. Capitol and founding a peaceful republic), the most pressing challenge to cryptid sustainability is the belief in their potential use as weapons by some nasty folks who know how to capture them. With their various powers and impulses and morphologies, cryptids, it seems, are inherently dangerous, and, like any being facing a threat, they’re likely to fight to the death.
Which is why the tale’s nominal heroine, Lauren Grey, a veterinarian by training, has been on a lifelong mission to protect cryptids from exploitation ever since her childhood nightmares were relieved by the aforementioned baku. But is the high barrier around the Cryptozoo—scaled by Matt and Anna, expecting to find a secret military installation on the other side rather than a unicorn—protective or imprisoning? Is Lauren and her associate Joan’s quest to provide every cryptid a safe home a defensible ideal or a selfish utopian pipedream? The cryptids themselves seem to have very little say in the matter, forced to accept their human defenders’ good intentions as well they can understand them, which may be very poorly. (Their warlike exploiters’ harmful intentions are always clear, however.) And maybe it’s unfortunate that the film can’t quite get us into some alternative forms of thought and communication that varieties of nonhumanoid cryptids might employ. We’re merely told that “intelligence has nothing to do with appearance.”
Really, though Cryptozoo seems to want to argue for cryptid (and generally nonhuman) rights and agency, this is more of a film about the inevitable missteps of human intervention in nonhuman lives. It is a film about humans and the incompatibility of their systems and philosophy of protection with the needs and unknowable desires of the natural world. The term zoo is a misnomer, Lauren assures another character as she leads her on a tour. Really the Cryptozoo is a sanctuary, she says. But other, less sanguine characters later challenge this idea, calling it a carnival and a holding pen. True, Lauren will admit, the cryptids need to perform for visitors in order to make the operation financially viable, but only for awhile, until their strangeness is appreciated, normalized rather than exploited, and then the cryptids can wander free among us, like any other domesticated animal one supposes. But, to greater and lesser extent, we see that domestication is already under way in the zoo/sanctuary, and while it might bring some creatures pleasure, we viewers can’t help but be troubled by it. Meanwhile those cryptids who can’t behave remain caged, reinforcing the sense of their bestiality and inherent danger.
There are frequent gestures to these ideas throughout the film, but mostly it plays out as an action picture, an individual fight between the heroic Lauren and her evil “ex-military, extremist” antagonist Nicholas, a kind of cryptid bounty hunter working for the U.S. military. There’s a good deal of violence throughout Cryptozoo, pitting woman against man against cryptid against captivity, and the amount of bloodletting, as well as the easy urge to violence, is consistently disturbing. Whatever the moral challenges of protecting the wondrous in the name of love, of providing a safe haven to the special secrets of fantasy and nature, these seem to pale in comparison to the horrors of an essentially bullying, misogynistic, and destructive worldview that relentlessly seeks domination over all.
Read more reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival here.