Outside episodic television, adult animation is seldom procured at studios in the U.S. Still; the medium has found stateside keepers of mature content among independent creators. Dash Shaw, alongside fiercely autonomous storytellers like Don Hertzfeldt and veteran Bill Plympton, is one of the most visionary American animation filmmakers pushing past the thematic and aesthetic boundaries imposed in family-friendly fare.
In “Cryptozoo,” his follow-up to the hilarious disaster teen comedy “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” Shaw, who’s also quite prolific in the comic book arena, has gone bolder and more intricate in a kaleidoscopic adventure best dubbed as the “Jurassic Park” of mythical creatures. There’s cursing, sex, drugs, and, more notably, astute philosophical ruminations put forward with spectacularly imaginative world-building.
Psychedelic intercourse (yeah, you read correctly) leads to a unicorn sighting that introduces a reality where all the magical beings, both beastly and humanoid, that you’ve ever read about in epics and folklore exist. But, just as with exotic fauna, these are endangered—at the mercy of human greed and our bellicose tendencies. The sheer ambition to design and breathe life into such a plethora of bizarre cryptids, as they are formally known, makes for a visual extravaganza with an aura of mysticism. Jane Samborski, the animation director and Shaw’s creative right-hand, deserves as much credit.
Our knowledgeable guide into this WTF realm is Lauren Gray (a perfectly cast, soft-spoken Lake Bell). Ever since a childhood encounter with a Japanese baku, a dream eater in the form of a pig-elephant hybrid, cryptozoology has been her passion. Now, after years rescuing the eclectic life forms from poachers and other nefarious monsters, like military strongman Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), Lauren has joined fellow cryptid lover Joan (Grace Zabriskie) in her plan to open an Epcot-like amusement park to normalize their existence and teach civilians about them. Yet, as Amber (Louisa Krause), the woman who finds the horned horse in the opening, declares, “Utopias never work out.”
As complications mount, Shaw evinces that what they see as a sanctuary for the protection of mermaids, goblins, centaurs, et cetera, responds more to mankind’s voracious need to control and possess everything under the sun than a beneficial situation for those in captivity. A zoo will always be a zoo and not nature, regardless of thoughtful purpose. Rather than letting the unknown roam free, we wish to keep it under our thumb. But some of the universe’s secrets should remain hidden.
Determined to find her cherished baku and bring it into the artificial habitat, Lauren launches a search. Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia (best known for her role in “Dogtooth” and fittingly present here) voices Phoebe, a gorgon with serpents for hair and the power to turn anyone who looks her in the eye into stone (don’t call her Medusa, though). Being physiologically close to the average person, she serves as a bridge between the cryptids and their captors. While she is part of Lauren’s mission, she has doubts about the endgame.
To watch “Cryptozoo” is to open a Disneyland-size kingdom of ideas that never cease to astound. On one level, it’s an introductory course in cryptozoology that piques our curiosity about the feathered and tentacled entities humanity has conjured up across the globe over millennia imparted in expressive drawings. But once you think you’ve figured out how wildly unrestrained it is in its inventiveness, the movie turns around and hits you with another twist on an insight or an unexpectedly violent set-piece that raises the stakes an extra notch. It’s such a mesmerizing dream onto itself the baku would feast on it straight from Shaw’s head.
Manifested beyond the sheer volume of characters but in the narrative’s scope, Shaw and Samborski’s stylistic growth shows a willingness to play with transitions, geometrical shapes, and sight gags. No doubt, these were present in ‘My Entire High School,’ but their latest appears even more as if ripped from the pages of a graphic novel to be given movement with access to all the ornamentation that a panel has. There’s a playful use of color grading, shifting perspectives, and textures that make waterfalls out of lines seemingly drawn with color pencils.
Of course, the painstaking research to collect all the uncanny cast of fantastical organisms and their origin stories elevates the concept tenfold. From the Luz Mala from South America, the massive Kraken, or the quizzically adorable Pliny (Emily Davis), each confounds and dazzles in animated form. Part of Shaw’s visionary brilliance in “Cryptozoo” shows how the acidic humor participates as a secondary element. The serious, even solemn, tone imbues a stirring urgency. Not for a second do we just laugh off the plot as silly. Instead, we are asked to think about the intent of the discussion at hand.
Stripped of their autonomy, the cryptids can either serve as caged entertainment, weapons of mass destruction, or die. “Cryptozoo” doesn’t hide its radical conservationist and progressive edge, even if disguised in its hypothetical premise. In the possibility that a villain could use the dream-eater to render the revolutionary youth complacent, in Phoebe’s desire to lead a conventional life and not that of a circus freak, or in Lauren’s process that taking ownership of what’s supposed to run beautifully amok, Shaw makes his strongest points about our toxic habit to strive to manipulate or utilize what we don’t understand for personal gain. Like an island to house dinosaurs, a fair to house the products of our collective imagination is a bad call. [A]