“Cryptozoo,” the dazzling animated feature from cartoonist Dash Shaw, takes place in the past and feels like it hails from another dimension. At the same time, in its hectic blend of a colorful, imaginative universe and evil forces stacked against it, the movie has a unique connection to the modern era. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening minutes, when a pair of ‘60s-era hippies (voiced by Louisa Krause and Michael Cera) wander the woods, and one shares a dreams of storming the Capitol to reboot society. His partner is skeptical. “Utopias never work out,” she says.
In Shaw’s daring, visionary work — a cluttered symphony of erratic line drawings, psychedelic colors, and recycled genre tropes galore — that sentiment looms large. “Cryptozoo” is all over the place, but it’s a total joy to immerse in Shaw’s expansive look at conflicting worldviews and environmentalist feats, bound together in a delightful consolidation of storytelling conventions that suggests “Yellow Submarine” by way of “Jurassic Park,” with a dose of “Tomb Raider” for good measure. It’s an overwhelming combination loaded with giddy, infectious creativity at every turn. Four years after his John Hughes-inspired teen disaster movie “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” Shaw has cemented his place as one of the most exciting new voices in animation.
No matter its wild swings, Shaw has crafted a singular world rooted in high stakes, centering the drama around the valiant efforts of Laura Gray (Lake Bell), a Lara Croftian adventurer focused on rescuing mythological creatures known as cryptids from the black market. Her quest stems from childhood, while growing up on an army base, when a mystical Japanese creature called a Baku snuck into her room and devoured her nightmares free of charge. (Bakus are nice like that.) Over the years, in her attempt to locate the critter, she’s become entrenched in the black market trade for a panoply of supernatural beings that Shaw has plucked from every folklore imaginable. Playing off popular myths while grounding them in a genuine emotional journey, the animator has built a premise so clever Pixar execs must be kicking themselves for not coming up with it first.
But this is not a Pixar movie. Loaded with bloody shootouts, seedy nightclubs, and even a murderous unicorn, “Cryptozoo” leans into the dark, chaotic man-versus-nature of its plot with zero restraint. It’s a wry metaphor for xenophobia and societies averse to Otherness in general. Those forces motivated wealthy matriarch Joan (Grace Zabriskie, a long way from Sarah Palmer) to start the titular zoo where Laura brings many of the beings she rescues from enslavement. The purpose of the cryptozoo is the subject of much dispute. Joan wants to help the animals (some of which possess human-level intelligence) build a safe life, Laura wants to study them, and some of the cryptids themselves would prefer to find a way to integrate themselves into society.
These include the junior cryptid hunter Phoebe (“Dogtooth” star Angeliki Papoulia), a Medusa-like being known as a gorgon who desperately wants to live a normal life with her human husband, even though she has to cover snake-covered hair to avoid turning everyone in its gaze to stone. “People always fear what they don’t understand,” she explains, as she tours the zoo, setting the stage for the conflict to come.
“Cryptozoo” speeds through the essence of its main conflict, which centers on a double-crossing faun named Gustav (a perfectly slimy Peter Stormare) and the ruthless cryptid hunter Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who traps the creatures for the U.S. government in the hopes of harnessing their power. As Laura’s main foe throughout the movie, he hopes to get his hands on the Baku in the hopes of using it to zap the dreams of ‘60s counterculture. As Laura explains, “without dreams, there can be no future.” It’s a brilliant metaphor that heightens the B-movie stakes and provides countless excuses for Shaw’s animation to work its surreal magic.
Dialing back the ironic tone that gave “My Entire High School” its charm, “Cryptozoo” traffics in blunter dialogue and a few too many screenplay contrivances, especially once it arrives at a violent finale when everything falls apart. But the shimmering colors and shifting lines elevate every scene, often creating the sense of a storybook in motion. When the cryptozoo becomes a battlefield, as giant snakes and floating South American orbs wreak havoc while a reptilian humanoid attempts to save his doomed lover, Shaw stuffs so many visual conceits into each moment, it’s almost too much for one mind to process. Yet with an awe-inspiring score by John Carrol Kirby pushing the drama forward, the movie zips along with such confident energy that it’s impossible not to settle into the sheer ingenuity of it all.
In the process of envisioning creatures from another world, “Cryptozoo” seems as if it was made in one, too. At the same time, there’s a striking consistency to Shaw’s first two movies that’s starting to have a ring of familiarity to it. Both “My Entire High School” and “Cryptozoo” cobble together formulas from movies often treated as disposable entertainment and refashion them into surprising and profound experiences. Shaw doesn’t reinvent the storytelling playbook so much as he runs it through his own kaleidoscopic filter, resulting in a welcome excuse to rediscover the mysteries of life through an unpredictable framework. “Cryptozoo” may be disorienting in parts, but the process of settling into its zany rhythms is the whole point. Brimming with constant new ideas and visual innovation, Shaw’s work captures the flurry of thought and motion at the center of dangerous times, and even dares to make them fun.
“Cryptozoo” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.