Dash Shaw’s second feature Cryptozoo finds one of its beginnings through a man (Michael Cera) and his girlfriend who inadvertently enters the titular cryptid amusement, and another beginning with Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), who calls herself an army brat, growing up in a US Army base in Okinawa in 1947. There, a Baku, one of the film’s cryptids, came to her while she was sleeping and ate her nightmares. This cements her love for these mysterious creatures.
One of the things that animation can do, obviously, is to expand viewers’ imaginations, and Cryptozoo, despite some nitpicks, does just that. It makes time to digress from Lauren’s original story to flesh out the supporting characters. Characters who who have their own dreams, families, and lives outside of Lauren’s original mission. Although yes, these characters put those dreams on hold for Lauren. Some conversations between these characters also make the film feel casual. That’s especially true with the scenes between Lauren’s sidekick Phoebe (Ageliki Papoulia), a Gorgon, and their mentor Joan (Grace Zabriskie).
Animation is also a perfect medium to tell these characters stories. That’s because some of them are cryptids and are more humanoid than the Baku. Cryptozoo also shows these characters’ frustrations. For example, Phoebe has to delay her wedding with Jay (Rajesh Parameswaran) for Lauren’s mission. Lauren’s mission, by the way, is to find the Baku and other cryptids. And she wants to shelter them in the titular zoo-like space before they get onto malevolent hands. Those hands, by the way, belong to Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan). He has his own flighty sidekick Gustav (Peter Stromare), a centaur.
Cryptozoo put a lot of work into bringing life to the cryptids, borrowing from different aesthetics like Renaissance, pre-Raphaelite, and obviously, Surrealist Art. Some of the cryptids come from Western cultures but others are Eastern. And the film feels like its showing the latter creatures from within too much of a Western lens.
The feature also has its interesting depictions of human body. And some viewers can appreciate the musculature in these human figures. Thus, the comparison to Renaissance art and, more specifically, Michelangelo. Obviously, choosing animation as a medium gives actors a lot of leeway. It doesn’t have to let those actors do anything more than give their voices to their characters. And of course, Shaw worked with female animators and have strong female characters. But some of those characters are still under a really male gaze, hint hint.
This feature’s gaze can be occasionally uncomfortable. But this is going to be perfect for intellectual viewers. Ones who are waiting for an animation film that they can call theirs. In fairness, adult animation comes at least twice a year now. And this one is both funny and visceral, culminating in a satisfying conclusions where each complex character gets their due.
Catch Cryptozoo on TIFF’s Digital Lightbox.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Animation
- Release Date: 8/20/2021
- Directed by: Dash Shaw
- Starring: Angeliki Papoulia, Grace Zabriskie, Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Peter Stormare, Rajesh Parameswaran, Thomas Jay Ryan
- Produced by: Bill Way, Jane Samborski, Kyle Martin, Tyler Davidson
- Written by: Dash Shaw
- Studio: Fit Via Vi Film Productions