The world we find ourselves in in the animated film Cryptozoo is one chock-full of cryptids — the term used for mythological, folkloric beings or animals that exist amongst us often in hiding. Our main heroine Lauren Grey’s introduction to the world of cryptids comes in the form of help she receives from the Japanese dream eater the Baku as a child. She has devoted her life to saving and preserving the cryptids that are bartered or traded by enterprising humans. Upon freeing them she takes them to the Cryptozoo in California where her and her investor Joan have put together a full theme park for people to view them. The Cryptozoo is the way they believe they can help break down barriers and change the public opinion on the creatures. Their adversary in this mission is Nicholas, who’s a cryptid hunter, motivated to capture as many as possible to give to the American government for profit.
In the film, the major catalyst pushing Lauren and Nicholas together is their search for the Baku, which has escaped after being captured by American forces. Finding the Baku means everything to Lauren due to her personal connection to the creature, and its powers are the ultimate boon for Nicholas’s military contacts. Joining Lauren on her search is a new recruit named Phoebe, a cryptid herself, who supports the mission even as she wrestles with what the Cryptozoo represents and if it’s the best way for cryptids to make headway in gaining independence.
It’s easy to see Cryptozoo as a commentary on how we commodify people that venture from what we deem normal, and our treatment of wild or non-domesticated animals. The exoticism of cryptids makes them intriguing to visitors of the zoo and the military interest is due to their powers, which can be utilized as weapons. In both camps, they are being seen for the benefits they provide to others rather than for their own autonomy. While some cryptids are fully functional and able to blend into society like Phoebe, there are some that are just animals, untamable and non-communicative. As Phoebe becomes a part of the Cryptozoo staff she is able to shine a light on some of the problems with the movement that she can uniquely speak to as a cryptid herself.
One of the parts I enjoyed the most about the film was its deeper examination of saviorhood. When faced with people or creatures we view as having little to no power, we seek to rescue or save them. In doing so, though, humans often cannot untangle themselves from the notion that they are responsible for them or know what is best for them. So many human travesties across millennia have been handled under the guise of “aid” when it was never requested in the first place. Even as the film blurs the line between cryptids as people and as mythological creatures that behave like animals with various degrees of sentience, we find an easy comparison with the treatment of both. It comes down to the matter of empathy versus sympathy, and the way many people with power over others tend to begin infantilizing them. At some point in the film one of Nicholas’s henchmen comments on the name Lauren gives the Baku, a name that everyone else in the film begins calling it as well. Of course, this is a name that she independently gives to the Baku indicating some degree of ownership. Even as someone fighting for the freedoms of these creatures, she can’t help but reduce this mythological creature to an almost pet-like status automatically.
When considering the cryptids as an analogy for wild animals, there are many direct comparisons you can make to the current treatment and consequences that have been faced when trying to train and keep dangerous animals in captivity. Even as people rally around zoos for the benefit they give — providing endangered animals with homes that would be extinct otherwise — we have to acknowledge in the same breath that for many their extinction falls on the shoulders of humans. We have destroyed their natural habitats in many cases or hunted their species to the point of extinction. Along with zoos, of course, theme parks such as SeaWorld have been a part of the new wave of consciousness about how we treat and abuse animals for entertainment purposes. The documentary Blackfish was effective in giving reasons as to why these performance animals were acting out at the park and causing deaths. In the film, the zoo environment is meant to make the creatures seem less threatening, more playful even at times, but it belies that they really are dangerous.
The behavior of both Joan and Lauren when it comes to their relationship to these creatures reminds me of the colorful characters in Netflix’s Tiger King. The documentary series featured a number of figures dealing with the acquisition and display of tigers and other big cats usually shipped from international locations. All of the owners of big cat-holding facilities had different personalities and ideas on how to run their operations, but all three had an intense relationship with the tigers they owned. In a very short amount of time the series gained widespread popularity due in part to the kookiness of one of the main subjects, Joe Exotic, but also because of the conversation it started about animals and ownership. In Cryptozoo, Nicholas wants the Baku, and other creatures, so he can sell them as goods and assets, and Lauren wants to give them a safer environment and protection, but both do seek to put cryptids in cages. Lauren cares about the cryptids and wants them to be treated well, but her method of capturing creatures involves leashing them and adapting them to a zoo for profit to invest in her rescue operations. Either way the profits from the creatures are going to other humans, not the cryptids themselves; even Nicholas can see and acknowledge that he and Lauren have more similarities than she’d like to admit. Her cages may be bigger and less restrictive, but they are still cages.
While we do see open hostility and abhorrent treatment of cryptids in the film, the subtlety in the destructiveness of the zoo and the breakdown of the noble message of the well-meaning crowd add more layers and believability to the story. At some point in the film our characters return to the Cryptozoo after all of the animals have been released and are running wild. We eventually find out that their release, though well-intentioned, missed the mark, revealing that although humans are in control in this world they can behave like impulsive, emotional animals too. It gives more support to the theory that the cryptids should have their independence and that they don’t need humans as much as the humans need them. I enjoyed the film’s equal stance of both condemning American greed and critiquing the actions of those that seek to help but do more harm than good. In all, the feature touches on ownership, exploitation, and autonomy; while some subjects aren’t given a great amount of screen time, I think the film still succeeds in showing all kinds of moral quandaries involved in these issues.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories.