REVIEW: Cryptozoo/Strawberry Mansion (Sundance 2021)
Two weirdly wonderful and colourfully creative stories that brought a burst of unique invention to the fest.
Cryptozoo is an animation-for-adults that seems very much a throwback to the late 60s/early 70s in its styling and its bizarre storyline. Strawberry Mansion is an indie romantic dramedy with extremely striking production design.
Cryptozoo begins with a scene of nudity and violence (caused by a unicorn horn) that will quickly make you realise that this animation is decidedly not-for-kids. It then becomes a far-ranging, free-wielding exploration into the world of ‘cryptids’ – mythological creatures. Lauren (Lake Bell) is on a mission to protect these creatures, who understandably are feared, hunted and have to live in hiding or use disguises in order to survive. The Cryptozoo is designed to be a sanctuary for these ‘creatures’, but the zoo/theme park comes with the corporate traps of any business. Soft toy versions of the ‘animals’ are sold to try to make the place sustainable. But many of these ‘creatures’ are intelligent and can communicate or even speak human languages including English…so are they animals or people?
The messaging of Cryptozoo is not subtle, with its environmental concerns blurring with those of human and civil rights. The backstories of the creatures and the cultural contexts they come from could have been explored more, as the myths they originate from are fascinating and very specific to the countries that conjured them. The animation is the greatest strength here, with its echoes of Yellow Submarine (1968) and Fantastic Planet (1973). The 60s theme continues to the setting and subject-matter, with idealistic hippies trying to save the world, but sometimes inadvertently becoming part of the problem. Lake Bell does give a heartfelt central performance as Lauren and without her at the centre, the film would fall apart.
The series of vignettes are entertaining within themselves, but the connective tissue is slightly weaker. It can be quite confusing to follow an enormous cast of characters from all over the world and there are so many, it is hard to really invest in or connect with/care about individuals. The experience of watching is visually overwhelming (a good thing) but narratively overwhelming as well (more of a struggle). The messaging isn’t saying anything particularly insightful or giving us a new angle, but the gorgeous animation is enough to sustain interest (just about).
Strawberry Mansion is written and directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. It also stars Audley as James Preble, an auditor who visits a pink house belonging to Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) to do his job, but gets sucked into her dreams/memories and falls in love with her younger self (played by Grace Glowicki).
Kentucker Audley is a central figure in the thriving American independent film scene, having acted in films directed by David Lowery, Alex Ross Perry, Martha Stephens, Alison Bagnall, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Michelle Morgan and Amy Seimetz. He also writes and directs his own work (with Birney), such as Sylvio, about a small-town gorilla on a journey of self-discovery. Audley and Birney clearly have a taste for the surreal and absurd, something that is sorely needed in what can often be a downbeat and dreary low-budget indie landscape, where muted tones and hazy visuals are often considered “profound” in some way. This means when something genuinely refreshing and original comes along, such as last year’s wonderful The Twentieth Century, it is to be savoured like the dripping ice cream that Preble is offered at the threshold to Arabella’s house.
There is something comforting about the analogue world that Audley and Birney have created – Arabella’s dreams are stored on VHS tapes that Preble must painstakingly check through. The styling – such as Preble’s suit, fedora and moustache – seem to place this aesthetically in the past, even if it is set in an unsettling future world (where ‘chicken milkshakes’ are a thing – shudder). Preble’s own dreamscape – a recurring nightmare in which he is trapped in a small and extremely pink room which gets invaded by a cheery neighbour who may have sinister intentions – contrasts with the comfort and joy he finds in Arabella’s imagination.
But the haven that Arabella and Preble get to exist in (even for a short while) is under threat from her scheming family who start to hang around like flies once they smell death. The messaging of the film is kind of all over the place, with some anti-capitalist and anti-corporation themes and an indulgence of the desire to escape into a fantasyland of one’s one creation. But the film itself is also intentionally scatterbrained in the way dreams are – it flits from one bizarre scene to another, is easy to get lost and confused in and makes little sense. None of this particularly matters if you’re enjoying the experience of exploring these endearing characters within this endlessly imaginative world. Your tolerance of all things whimsical and kooky will vary, but this film has a heart that it’s hard not warm to.
It’s also so enjoyable to see the obviously hand-painted props and rooms and imagine what a fun set this would have been to work on. The love of filmmaking is palpable and the joy of creating something this wildly inventive on such a small budget can be felt through the screen. This may be the theatre kid within me talking, but it’s inspiring to see what can be achieved by a cast and crew who are clearly fuelled by passion and crazy ideas.
Unique approaches to film with a heavy dash of weirdness are always going to score highly with me and this is exactly the kind of the thing I come to the Sundance Film Festival to seek out. A splash of colour, magical wonderlands to explore and a hallucinatory experience are all bonuses and that’s what Cryptozoo and Strawberry Mansion delivered in spades. Seek out these freaky little gems when you can.