Berlinale 2021 review: Cryptozoo (Jane Samborski & Dash Shaw)

In Cryptozoo, characters and objects are contoured by black lines, but everything else is often not. Colors flow freely from one character to the background to another character, in a visual experiment similar to that seen in 2018’s The Wolf House. It’s an apt visual tool for a sprawling story such as this, where mythologies from different regions of the world collide and mix constantly, and where the emotions run higher and higher as it goes on.

The animated feature, credited to animation director Jane Samborski and My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea director Dash Shaw, follows Lauren, a woman in ’60s America trying to save and protect cryptids, all sorts of mythological creatures whose very existence is debated and who are being trafficked in the black market. One of them, the baku, is capable of sucking up dreams from sleeping people, and is being hunted by the military to remove all hopes of a freer world. Lauren is joined by Phoebe, a cryptid herself, in a journey all over the US to find the elusive baku, confronted by an escaped faun that runs his own cryptid-enslaving business.

With echoes of X-Men, the film tells a fairly simple and straightforward story about minorities’ place in the world, with the main debate circling around the idea of the cryptozoo itself, a place where cryptids could live without fear but where they would ultimately be confined from the rest of the world. Would this mean further discrimination? Or could it be a necessary stepping stone towards inclusion?

In the hands of a more restrained team, Cryptozoo would probably fall flat. But the film’s maximalist vision is paradoxically both its greatest asset and its most tiring aspect. The stakes are infinitely raised as the story goes on, drifting from orgies to strip clubs to watchtowers to the amusement park itself. Centaurs, unicorns, fauns, medusas, dragons and will-o’-the-wisps are just some of the creatures freely entering and exiting the screen, each captivating in its own way. It’s chaotic, but it’s a mesmerizing, delightful, impossible-to-pin-down chaos. The wild graphic tendencies first hinted at with My Entire High School are here amped up to extremes, and the passion behind each frame is evident. This energy can eventually prove a bit tiring, especially in a drawn-out climax where everything seems to crash into everything else.

Cryptozoo is a playful and imaginative piece that proves Shaw and Samborski are among the most interesting American animators currently working. The ever-changing nature of the drawings hints at an interest in more abstraction that is still to be matched by the story. In The Wolf House, the shape-shifting nature of the animation reflected the fragmentary inner mental state of its protagonist. Here it seems to be tied with hallucinogens, with the film being set in the psychedelic era. What thematic and technical explorations await for this animating duo is something that every animation enthusiast should keep an eye on.