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Dash Shaw’s Sophomore Effort ‘Cryptozoo’ Fascinates on the Surface

From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, we review ‘Cryptozoo,’ the latest from Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski.
Sundance 2021: Cryptozoo
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on January 29th, 2021

From 2016 to 2020 in Richmond, Virginia, writer-director-animator Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski hand drew Cryptozoo with a small team of artists. On the surface, so what? The age-old tradition of meticulously hand-drawn animation isn’t a modern-day spectacle simply because the practice is almost extinct. But the married couple isn’t just bringing hand drawn animation back to cinema. They’re revolutionizing it. Of course, that’s a loaded statement.

The film follows human cryptozookeeper and cryptid (an animal whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated) rescuer Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) and her new cryptid understudy, Phoebe (the cleverly cast Angeliki Papoulia), a gorgon from Greek mythology (think: Medusa) who must tranquilize her snakes (read: hair) and hide them to fit in. She also has to cover and disguise her eyes to keep from turning others into stone.

Lauren and Phoebe are searching for the ethereal Japanese Baku, a pig-elephant-esque cryptid that emits hundreds of little smoky, pearlescent blue spirals and is known for its omnipotent ability to steal dreams – a truly mindboggling creature. They intend to bring the Baku back to the cryptozoo, where it will be safe from deep state lackeys who want to capture it in order to mine its power for military use against the rising 1960s counterculture.

The stacked cast also features a unicorn-meddling hippie voiced by Michael Cera, a wheeling and dealing dive-bar Mr. Tumnus of sorts voiced by Peter Stormare, and more natural and supernatural oddities voiced by Grace Zabiskie, Jason Schwartzman, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Louisa Krause. They bring to mind acid-induced dream logic adventures like Belladonna of Sadness, Fantastic Planet, Yellow Submarine, and that banned Mormon cartoon from the ’80s.

It’s difficult to land on a lone descriptor that accurately captures the breadth of animated expression in the mythological menagerie that is Cryptozoo. However, any number of words would suffice to describe the experience as a whole: kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory, inventive –words that could also apply to John Carroll Kirby’s terrific score. The animation is, in Shaw’s own words, “exploiting what drawing can do that live-action can’t: depict[ing] what we can’t see.”

With inspiration from early 20th-century cartoonist Winsor McCay and other pioneers in the field, Shaw and Samborski took a new thin-line approach to Cryptozoo. From the first scene’s skinny ribbons of red-blue forestry laid like neon over black slate, the animation of the couple’s second feature is very different from their 2016 debut, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, the thick-black-lined subjects of which looked more like newspaper comic strip characters. Here, outlines are hardly traceable and sometimes invisible to the naked eye.

The near-absence of densely lined barriers between different styles of animation creates a flattening effect that miraculously renders everything on the same plane at once. It allows characters and settings to exist in a fluid transition of color from top to bottom and heightens the gorgeous, trippy aesthetic of the film. Rocks are painted like Pollocks, strewn globs of oil protruding from the surface. Cryptids and humans alike are painted with watercolors (almost all of them done by Samborski herself). Settings are comprised of wild patterns, texture swatches, pencil sketches, impressionistic creations, and so much more. It’s insanely impressive, a full-force imagination. But where that nebulous energy thrives in the vast imagination of the animation, it sours in the stale narrative.

Unfortunately, and quite shockingly, another set of less desirable words would also suffice to describe the Cryptozoo experience: tiresome, aimless, strained. I want to be clear: these words do not apply to the animation, which remains wondrous throughout, but to the story at the center. But why? We travel from California to Florida to Kentucky and back with a pursuant sinister military head on our tail and a seemingly infinite cast of newly minted cryptids. On paper, it sounds like a rollercoaster. A seminal tarot card reading sequence stands out as one of the film’s most compelling. Yet, it’s those few compelling moments down the road that awaken the realization that, while transfixed with the morphing of colors and unfolding of textures that define Shaw’s idiosyncratic direction, the story is missing an emotional core.

Racism is paralleled through the tangled relationship between humans and cryptids. The sickening effects of capitalism on non-profit-pursuits-turned-profitable sit center stage thematically as Lauren begins to question the function of the cryptozoo/sanctuary/theme park and its effect on the cryptids on display after Phoebe expresses concerns. There’s no shortage of ambition in what Shaw tries to address in the story, but it feels inert and lacks a sense of navigation when it comes to tackling, or even just touching on, themes like racism, capitalism, and captivity. They fall woefully short of the gripping standard set by the animation.

The spoon-fed themes and narrative predictability can be summed up in an interaction between the naked free spirits that stumble onto the cryptozoo in the opening sequence. “There could be magic here, or a utopia,” the man says, already scaling the fence to see what’s behind it. “Utopias never work out,” the woman replies in an all too heavy-handed, foreshadowing tone.

Films aren’t often fascinating and tedious at the same time, but consider the nature of the work, which feels more like wandering through a great museum than watching a movie at times. How often do you stare at your favorite artworks for ninety-five minutes uninterrupted? Or even thirty minutes? Barring outright obsession or a research initiative, it sounds a bit dull, no?

However, it would be ridiculous of me not to recommend it. At the end of the day, it’s a fever dream unlike any you’ve seen. It makes Fantastic Planet look tame. And in 2021, dreams are more important than ever. They form the collective imagination that drives us toward change. It is a singular vision such as this – even if that singularity only occupies certain aspects of the film – that draws out the real-world meaning at Cryptozoo’s core: “Without dreams, there can be no future.” And that is a nightmare.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.