Dash Shaw’s jungle of drawings and colors is worth visiting.
“Cryptozoo” is a different kind of independent feature, because it features writer/director Dash Shaw’s animation technique, that combines hand drawings, other kinds of animation, and Photoshop. His first feature was “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea,” so this isn’t his debut. For me, it feels like something out of Dr. Seuss’ “If I Ran The Zoo” mixed with “Onward” and “Jurassic Park,” minus the dinosaurs.
To elaborate on that, we meet Lauren Grey (voiced Lake Bell), whose nightmares were eaten by an ancient spirit known as the Baku. Ever since, she’s been searching the globe for mythical creatures to protect from the black market. She and her good-natured superior Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie) run the Cryptozoo sanctuary in California, where they display and protect all creatures big and small. And these creatures are known as cryptids.
I’d be lying if I understood the complete nature that Shaw was trying to convey, but I was mostly dazzled by his artwork and the voice actors he picks. They sound like live action characters, and so do the sound effects. Almost with a Richard Linklater quality.
After losing a sacred bird to the villainous Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), she ends up in a Moscow hospital, where Gloria informs her that the Baku from her childhood has been discovered in North America, and needs the timid gorgon Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia) to help find it.
In order to blend in with society, Phoebe injects her snakes with a sedative, and wears a turban. In her animation, her skin is black and white, which sets a sentimental mood for her. She worries that people will degrade and humiliate her kind and other cryptids at the Cryptozoo, while Lauren tries to assure her it’s a legitimate organization.
Meanwhile, the villain Nicholas is a former military man, who plans to use the fantasy creatures as weapons of war. He, too, covets the Baku, while making sure the Cryptozoo gets shut down.
Then, the movie becomes “Jurassic Park” when the creatures break loose, following a night when two nudists (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) break into the zoo, and disturb a unicorn. The good guys and bad guys now have to deal with a giant snake, the kraken, and flying hybrids.
The animation threatens to upstage the story, but I was mostly impressed by how Shaw presents his characters in various lights and emotions. I love looking at how Lauren uses a catch pole to hitch a ride on a giant bird from a helicopter, and to hang on as a castle collapse. I adore how the goblins’ cave has colorful stones on their walls, as well as some lights that help out during the final act. And on the emotional side, I admire the humanity inside Phoebe when she questions about her kind in society and what her world holds for her.
“Cryptozoo” might give animation fans some ideas about how animated movies are made and can be made of they put all their hearts and passion into them. This movie doesn’t care for the big ad campaign, after all it is released by Magnolia Pictures, but rather, it cares for the very ideas that the artisan cinema can achieve.
Japanese animated movies like “My Neighbor Totorro” or “Spirited Away” can take the genre to new heights, and seeing this movie reminded me of some other independent animated entries of its kind like “A Cat in Paris” or “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” The voice actors (also with Peter Stormare as a double dealing faun and Zoe Kazan as a wise tarot reader) make these characters sound like humans, not cartoon characters.
In Select Theaters and On Demand