The days of major hand-drawn animated movies being a major force in film are long behind us. Computer-generated animation has become the dominant force and likely will remain so because it’s faster, cheaper, and less labor-intensive. But hand-drawn animation still exists at the margins, and Dash Shaw’s sophomore feature Cryptozoo is a shining example of how lovely and entrancing the medium can be. Its phantasmagorical display of mythical creatures and abundant color makes it a significant step up from his debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, even though the plotting still suffers from some of the aimlessness of that film.
Cryptozoo opens on a meditative note as a hippy couple in what’s later revealed to the 1960s strip to the nude while out in a forest at night. After some surprisingly poignant lovemaking, Matthew (Michael Cera, showing unusual depth), discovers a fenced enclosure hiding something astounding: a unicorn. The two buck-naked wanders have stumbled into a compound that’s half exotic animal shelter and half Disneyland. It’s filled with winged horses, a giant squid-like Kraken, pointy-nosed elf-like tricksters, and chimeras, to name just a sampling. Some are savage beasts, while others, like a satyr (voiced by Fargo’s Peter Stormare) are intelligent and humanoid. Shaw, who was best known as a graphic novelist before moving into film animation, has said that all of the creatures in the movie were based on real mystical beasts, and the attention to detail will be thrilling to anyone who studied Greek mythology in school or went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of fantastical Japanese creatures.
Lake Bell voices Lauren Grey, a conservationist who wants to track down as many of the cryptids for the zoo as possible. Though she thinks of herself as righteous, she’s motivated more by an obsession that originated in her childhood during an encounter with a baku, a piglike Japanese mythological beast with the snout of an elephant that sucks up and eats dreams. In her case, it ate her nightmares and gave her peaceful sleep, but it can also eat positive dreams that motivate one to live. Joan (Twin Peaks’ Grace Zabriskie) is the elderly patron who owns the cryptozoo and isn’t afraid to turn it into an amusement park if it will provide enough money to keep it open. While in search of the baku, they team up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia, best known for her collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos). She’s a Medusa-like Gorgon with a head of snakes and eyes that turn people into stone, but she tranquilizes the snakes and puts them under a wig, and wears contacts to prevent herself from killing everyone who glances at her. She passes as human, but she views the cryptozoo as a transitional space that can raise awareness about cryptids in hopes of making humans fear them less. As they traverse the US in search of the baku, shadowy military figures are hot on their tale in hopes of using it to eat the dreams of hippies and leftists protesting against the government.
In place of the thick line drawings of My Entire High School, Shaw and his animation director (and wife) Jane Samborski have created more delicate, detailed character designs that convey far more emotion than in the previous film. The vocal talent is also stronger this time around, and there are surprisingly emotional performances from Cera in the introduction and Papoulia later in the film that wouldn’t have been possible with the older style. But it’s the cryptids and landscapes that are the most entrancing aspect of Cryptozoo. They’re suffused with color in ways that make it easy to stare and lose track of the plot, which has several unfortunate valleys. Shaw’s animation and characterization are more compelling than ever, but his ability to bind those aspects together with his story is still limited. He seems to have been influenced by the plot and majesty of some of Steven Spielberg’s films, most obviously the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park, and most people familiar with those movies will see exactly where Cryptozoo is going long before it gets there. But seeing is also part of the pleasure with images as beautiful as these. Shaw still has plenty of room to improve, but if he makes something this beautiful it will always be worth watching.