Somewhere between René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and the world of mumblecore lies Dash Shaw’s confounding and kooky Cryptozoo, a lush but somewhat impenetrable dose of animated science fiction. Another off-center animation for adults after his My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, Shaw continues to establish himself as a one-of-a-kind storyteller standing far outside the lines of convention and normalcy. Here he pits a world of mythological beings at odds with human violence, resulting in a film that is by turns queer, audacious, bursting with originality, and finally somewhat tiring.
With a vocal cast filled with recognizable names with unrecognizable voices, Cryptozoo takes on an episodic structure of compounding stakes and new levels of the bizarre. The film begins in a tonal Eden before growing steadily darker, starting with two lovers fucking in the woods before discovering the secret cryptids in captivity. As the film’s disparate chapters progress, it descends into all-out phantasmagoric warfare. This arc turns Cryptozoo into a wild hybrid of genres, from mystic sci-fi allegory one passage to socially conscious espionage thriller the next, all while delivering some of the most mind-bending and morbidly witty animation to grace the arthouse in recent years.
Blending myth and contemporary outrage, Shaw delivers a film like few others but with a bevy of reference points you can’t always predict. To attempt to assemble a description of its plot is to toss off a dozen formless absurdities: the titular sanctuary where the film’s beasts are observed, the nightmare-devouring baku, guerilla attempts to free the cryptids and military intervention. Rendered in agile and idiosyncratic animation that balances a massive scale with the intimate, Cryptozoo is as interested in sexual and philosophical identities as it is with the very real forces in our world that enact destruction and chaos against the beauty of our evolving biology.
Cryptozoo is a categorically unbridled vision, bold and original but with narrative limitations. The film is more a collection of oddities and intense fascinations than it is a successfully compelling narrative. It is obsessed with bodies and violence, whether spiritual or physical, and it is happy to simply meander through those obsessions than form them into something with clear intention. Rather than building a large-scale Hieronymus Bosch metaphor for the destruction of our global natural world, the disjointedness of the film’s chapters serve to deflate the film’s narrative thrust. An intentional flatness to the delivery of story details and vocal performance may be one of the signifiers of the film’s originality, but it makes the film difficult to fully embrace.
But Cryptozoo is also certainly the kind of film where your mileage may vary, especially for differently minded audiences or ones prepared to bring their own haze to its storytelling fog. You can imagine the film meeting its full capacity with the assistance of a controlled substance, perhaps to maximize the impact of its creative outlandishness and minimize the frustration of its halting delivery. Ultimately worthwhile for its ability to provide ideas and visuals well beyond the norm, Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo is on its own far-out wavelength, one it seems is difficult to fully sync with.