From 2016-2020 in Richmond, Virginia, Writer-Director-Animator Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski Hand drawn Cryptozoo with a small team of artists. On the surface, so what? The centuries-old tradition of meticulously hand-drawn animation is not a modern spectacle just because the practice has almost died out. But the couple doesn’t just bring hand-drawn animation back to the cinema. You revolutionize it. That is of course a loaded statement.
The film follows the human Cryptozookeeper and Cryptid (an animal whose existence is controversial or unsubstantiated), rescuer Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) and her new cryptic understudy, Phoebe (who cleverly cast Angeliki Papoulia), a gorgon from Greek mythology (think Medusa) who has to calm (read: hair) her snakes and hide them to fit inside. She also needs to cover and disguise her eyes so as not to turn others to stone.
Lauren and Phoebe look for the ethereal Japanese Baku, a crypto-elephant-like cryptid that exudes hundreds of tiny smoky, pearly blue spirals and is known for its almighty ability to steal dreams – a truly stunning creature. They intend to bring the Baku back to the crypto-zoo, where they will be protected from deep state lackeys they seek to conquer in order to reduce their power for military purposes against the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s.
The stacked cast also includes a unicorn-meddling hippie voiced by Michael Cera, a kind of wheeling and dealing pub that Mr. Tumnus uttered of some sort Peter Stormareand more natural and supernatural curiosities uttered by Grace Zabiskie, Jason Schwartzman, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Louisa Krause. They are reminiscent of acidic dream logic adventures like Belladonna of Sadness, Fantastic Planet, Yellow Submarine and the forbidden Mormon cartoon from the 80s.
It is difficult to land on a solitary descriptor that accurately captures the breadth of animated expression in the mythological menagerie Cryptozoo. However, any number of words would be enough to describe the experience as a whole: kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory, inventive words that might also apply John Carroll Kirby‘s great score. In Shaw’s own words, the animation is: “Exploiting what drawing can do, what live action cannot do: display[ing] what we can’t see. “
With the inspiration of early 20th century cartoonist Winsor McCay and other pioneers in the field, Shaw and Samborski took a new approach to cryptozoo. From the thin ribbons of the first scene of red and blue forestry that lie like neon over black slate, the animation of the couple’s second feature film is very different from their 2016 debut, My Entire High School Sinking in the Sea, the thick black themes of that looked more like newspaper cartoon characters. Outlines are hard to understand here and sometimes invisible to the naked eye.
The near-lack of tight barriers between different animation styles creates a flattening effect that miraculously reproduces everything on the same layer at once. It allows for characters and settings to exist in a smooth gradient from top to bottom, enhancing the gorgeous, trippy aesthetic of the film. Rocks are painted like pollocks, scattered lumps of oil sticking out of the surface. Cryptids and humans alike are painted with watercolors (almost all by Samborski himself). The settings consist of wild patterns, texture patterns, pencil sketches, impressionist creations and much more. It’s incredibly impressive, a fantasy full of power. But where that nebulous energy thrives in the great imagination of animation, it acidifies in the stale narrative.
Unfortunately, and rather shockingly, another set of less desirable words would suffice to describe the Cryptozoo experience: tiresome, aimless, tense. I want to make it clear: these words do not apply to the animation, which remains wonderful throughout, but to the story in the center. But why? We travel from California to Florida to Kentucky and back with an eerie military head on tail and a seemingly infinite number of newly minted cryptids. It sounds like a roller coaster on paper. A seminal tarot card reading sequence is one of the most compelling in the film. However, it is these few compelling moments on the road that awaken the realization that the story lacks an emotional core, even though it is steeped in the metamorphosis of colors and the unfolding of textures that define Shaw’s idiosyncratic direction.
Racism is accompanied by the tangled relationship between humans and cryptids. The obnoxious effects of capitalism on charitable activities that have proven profitable take center stage as Lauren begins to question the function of the crypto zoo / sanctuary / theme park and its impact on the cryptids on display after Phoebe raised concerns . There’s no shortage of ambition in what Shaw tries to address in the story, but it feels sluggish and lacks a sense of navigation when it comes to tackling, or even just touching, topics like racism, capitalism and imprisonment . You miss the standard set in the animation.
The spoon-fed themes and the predictability of the narrative can be summed up in an interaction between the naked free spirits who stumble upon the crypto zoo in the opening sequence. “There could be magic here or a utopia,” says the man and is already climbing the fence to see what’s behind it. “Utopias never work,” replies the woman in an all too stubborn, forward-looking tone.
Movies aren’t often fascinating and boring at the same time, but consider the type of work that feels more like a stroll through a great museum than a movie. How often do you stare at your favorite artwork for ninety-five minutes without stopping? Or even thirty minutes? It sounds a little boring aside from total obsession or a research initiative, doesn’t it?
However, it would be ridiculous on my part not to recommend it. At the end of the day, it’s a feverish dream like you’ve never seen it before. It makes Fantastic Planet look tame. And in 2021, dreams are more important than ever. They form the collective imagination that drives us to change. It is a unique vision like this – even if this singularity only occupies certain aspects of the film – that brings out the real meaning at the core of Cryptozoo: “Without dreams there can be no future.” And that is a nightmare.