This review of “Cryptozoo” was first published after the film’s premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
If you ever talk to an animator, they are likely to share two opinions very quickly: one, “Animation is not a genre.” And two, “Animation isn’t exclusively for children.” Dash Shaw is one of many contemporary artists expanding the idea of what animation can do, and who it can be for, and with his second feature, “Cryptozoo,” his well of imagination is matched only by his precision at executing his ideas.
“Cryptozoo” delivers on the promise of Shaw’s first feature, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” This time out, the writer-director (in collaboration with animation director Jane Samborski) is even more assured as both a storyteller and as a crafter of images, be they outrageous or gorgeous, haunting or hilarious.
Underneath it all, Shaw seems to revel in genre, with his first film following the beats of a 1970s disaster movie and his latest hewing more along the lines of an espionage thriller. With those familiar narratives underpinning his projects, however, he sets out to take audiences to unmapped territory.
“Cryptozoo” follows the globe-trotting adventures of Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell). As a child growing up on an army base in Okinawa, Lauren was plagued by nightmares until a mythical creature — collectively categorized here as “cryptids” — called a Baku ate her dreams and gave her peace. As an adult, Lauren has dedicated her life to protecting these creatures from poachers, who would hunt them for sport or bounty, and from the U.S. military, which has nefarious plans for the Baku’s powers in particular.
Her collaborator, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), wants to open the Cryptozoo, an amusement park and menagerie that would allow humans to understand the beauty and majesty of cryptids, while also raising money for Joan and Lauren’s preservation efforts. But with army officer Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan) on their tail, their idealistic plans may not come to fruition.
The film opens itself to any number of readings — as a fable about the environment, biological diversity, tolerance and understanding, even the death of 1960s idealism since it’s pointedly set in 1967 — but “Cryptozoo” first and foremost tells a rousing story, one that sends Lauren and Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia, “Dogtooth”) everywhere from caves and mountains to strip clubs in search of cryptids.
(Phoebe, incidentally, is a gorgon, but she keeps the snakes on her head tranquilized in an effort to assimilate.)
Mixing and matching is clearly essential to Shaw’s aesthetic. One frame will feature a cloud (fluffy, photo-realistic, perfect) and then the next will have a waterfall that’s represented by a series of vertical lines, and both absolutely fit the storytelling. Similarly, the cryptids are a mix of established mythological beings (a pegasus, a unicorn) alongside original creations like Pliny (Emily Davis, “The Plagiarists”), a headless torso that has a giant face on their chest and stomach.
There aren’t any Happy Meal deals in Dash Shaw’s future, but for adult audiences willing to take a chance on an animated feature that is absolutely not aimed at their children, “Cryptozoo” is a dazzling and provocative delight.
“Cryptozoo” is out now on Blu-Ray and on demand.