The cartoonist and graphic novelist Dash Shaw made an impressive transition to animated feature filmmaking with My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, a combination disaster picture and teen comedy that had the endearingly lo-fi look and counterculture sensibility of an Adult Swim series. The movie was undeniably and entertainingly offbeat. But it never ranged too far beyond a few familiar pop sub-genres.
On the other hand, Shaw’s follow-up film, Cryptozoo, is very much its own animal, so to speak. Set in an alternate version of late-1960s America, the film follows Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a veterinarian who has dedicated her life to the protection and preservation of exotic mythological beasts, ever since she had an encounter as a child with an odd-looking elephant-like creature called a “baku,” which eats nightmares. While shadowy agencies hunt unicorns, griffins, and their ilk for the purposes of exploitation and research, Lauren and her benefactor, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), plan to invite the world to visit these wonders at a fanciful, Disney-esque amusement park.
Shaw made Cryptozoo with his creative and romantic partner, Jane Samborski, who designed the cryptids. The two are exploring what it means for humans to coexist on this planet with many different kinds of “others,” some beyond their understanding. Like a lot of naturalists past and present, Lauren believes she can get people to rally behind her beloved oddities if they can only experience them up close… and maybe even take home a stuffed toy from the gift shop. But by the end of Cryptozoo, she begins to see that it’s hard to share any unusual organisms—or their habitats—without losing some of what makes them unique. Even filled with dragons and krakens, a zoo is a zoo.
This problem of rendering the extraordinary ordinary extends to Cryptozoo itself, more often than it should. The movie’s primary appeal is Samborski and Shaw’s art, which layers elaborate psychedelic paintings and crude sketches, resembling something between an avant-garde museum exhibition and the fanciful doodles in a Dungeons & Dragons-loving high schooler’s notebook. At its best, the film is an exercise in imaginative weirdness for its own sake, similar to classic cult animated features like Fantastic Planet and Belladonna Of Sadness. Sometimes there’s no larger purpose beyond “Let’s look at some pretty splotches of color for a few seconds,” or, “What if we threw in a scene where a faun oversees an orgy?”
Yet these moments of digressive filigree—occasionally tinged with eroticism, and inspired by old pulp fantasy illustrations—tend to get flattened out by a plot too tediously plain for a film with such a funky premise. The slight story has Lauren and a gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) trying to find and save a baku before it can fall into the hands of a poacher (Thomas Jay Ryan), who wants to use the creature and other cryptids to enhance the power of the U.S. military and crush hippie idealism.
And so much of Cryptozoo consists of a ploddingly paced cross-country baku-hunt, culminating in a long sequence where the humans try to survive on an island overrun by uncaged cryptids. Like My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, the movie mostly features deadpan, almost monotone voice performances, presumably meant to heighten the surreality by serving as a contrast to the bizarre images. But while that approach worked reasonably well in an absurdist high school action-comedy, it deadens the tone in this much more earnest and spectacle-driven project. (It doesn’t help either that Shaw and composer John Carroll Kirby have opted for a soundtrack that sounds softly, lullingly “exotic,” like something better-suited to a yoga class.)
Cryptozoo isn’t a total whiff. It’s a thoughtful and well-intended project, made by some talented people. And just for its visual splendor alone, it’s bound to find some devoted fans. But there’s a scene toward the end of the film when Lauren takes care of a Dalmatian, and for a few seconds the sense of awe and wonder this movie means to evoke really comes through, in a more quiet and ordinary way. This dog is no cryptid; it’s just striking to look at, with its regal carriage and spotted coat. The scene is a reminder of how much better Cryptozoo is when it’s just being dazzling, and not trying to force a deeper significance onto all these cool pictures.