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Where the Wild Things Are

Johnny Dell'Angelo/Sundance Institute

Cryptozoo (2021)

Right now there is a huge fear being expressed in indie American cinema about people’s imaginations being stolen and our capacity for original wonder being stifled under the jackboots of government or corporate forces. The naked stoner at the start of the film (Michael Cera) tells his girlfriend about the horrendous vision he had of an armed and angry mob storming the Capitol. Then he climbs a giant fence, convinces his equally naked girlfriend, Amber (Louisa Krause) to follow him, and is gored to death by a unicorn. Yes, really. You can do that when it’s animated.

But the huge coincidence of the opener and how it positions its story in the current moment is almost secondary to “Cryptozoo’s” visual style. It reminded me of the flip drawings the boy sitting ahead of me in ninth-grade biology used to draw in the margins of his textbook, or the creepy, bloodthirsty drawings of the Vivian Girls by Henry Darger. And as with the Vivian Girls, despite the seemingly simplistic style, this is not a film for kids – Amber is naked and covered in blood for most of the film, there’s sex, amputations, mayhem and carnage galore. There’s also a light show done by the luz mala (will-o-the-wisps from South America), a tengu (a humanoid Japanese bird) that lets the huntress Lauren (Lake Bell) fly on its back, and a helpful tarot card diviner (Zoe Kazan) who explains magic very matter-of-factly. Somehow it’s very affecting.

The main plot is the quest by Lauren, a medusa, Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) and a headless boy, Pliny (Emily Davis), to locate a runaway baku named Mariko – a Japanese creature that eats your dreams – before the government does. Lauren encountered Mariko as a child in Okinawa, and therefore has a personal reason for rescuing Mariko for the safety of the Cryptozoo. Why yes, that would be a high-fenced sanctuary for the world’s mythical creatures, the one Amber and her boyfriend found by mistake. It goes without saying the word “Jurassic” is banned, although since we’re in the 1970s the concern is more about unmarked helicopters harnessing the dreams of the counterculture instead of the kraken in the centre lake. Cryptozoo is owned by Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who has made it her and Lauren’s life’s work to provide a safe haven for the cryptids, and not just because some of them are D.T.F.

It sounds insane, but somehow “Cryptozoo” keeps that vital inch away from being too mad. Writer-director Dash Shaw’s first feature, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” showed his mumblecore aesthestic for situational logistics as well as teary emotions. So this is a movie that knows Phoebe must tranquilize her snakes in order to leave the house. It knows that a satyr named Gustav (Peter Stormare) made a pretty good living playing his pipes at orgies behind the Iron Curtain. It knows that hand-animated drawings can somehow better express horror than the most realistic C.G.I., probably because our instinct with drawings is to fill in the gaps ourselves. And while it understands the human urge to classify and control everything around us, this is a movie that knows that we’re all untameable creatures at heart. It’s a weird and wild ride.


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