written and directed by Dash Shaw
by Walter Chaw I rail a lot about how animation is a genre in the United States instead of a medium, how the Japanese have it all figured out and we Americans are at least a generation behind. Now here's graphic novelist turned animator Dash Shaw, following up his better--or at least more focused--My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea with the oddly blissed-out eco-adventure flick Cryptozoo. What's clear is that this, more than his previous stuff, is an attempt to ape Japanese director Ujicha's hand-drawn nightmare/cutout style from stuff like the indelible The Burning Buddha Man and Violence Voyager. What Shaw hasn't successfully ported over is Ujicha's kineticism--that sense of propulsive, compulsive, nightmarish energy that confers upon his films a weird, repulsive energy. Watching Ujicha's films is like accidentally touching a sea cucumber. I reached into an opaque bag of Wonder Bread that I found in a cabin once and drew back, in revulsion, a hand covered in bright green slime. That's Ujicha. Cryptozoo is a movie that feels like it was based on one of the breathless stories Juliet and Pauline would have made up over a lazy summer's day in Heavenly Creatures. Just a long string of terribly important things tied together by "and then and then and this and also this" narrative exposition.
A period piece (I think) set at the death of the Progressive movement, Cryptozoo opens with two hippies on a camping trip, stumbling across Jurassic Park in their post-coital haze. Naked, they venture into this gated Eden to find...a unicorn! Alas, terrible things happen! And then we go to heroic Lauren Gray (voice of Lake Bell), a super special agent or something who has made it her life's work to protect cryptids, because one of them, a Baku, ate all of her nightmares when she was a child. Good so far? It's not good. There's an organization led by Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who partners Lauren with winsome Gorgon Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), who wears contacts to prevent her from petrifying men and also tranquillizes the snakes in her hair. Look, it doesn't matter. There's an evil hunter, Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who wants to exploit the cryptids; the U.S. Shadow government's intentions to weaponize them; the irony of the good guys wanting to put these things in zoos to protect them but Capitalism, man, Capitalism...man. Lauren and Joan and Phoebe jet around the globe, do some emotional groundwork on a thing that soldiers beat for having a face on its torso, and then somewhere along the way the last Tengu takes a bullet to the chest.
If this description reminds you of Rankin & Bass' The Last Unicorn, you're sort of on the right track, but The Last Unicorn is perverse in a useful way, whereas Cryptozoo is perverse in a "far out, man!" way. The picture goes through roll calls of these things, and then it either murders them or it doesn't. There's a stampede of centaur, there's a merman sighting, and through it all is the sense that I would probably really dig this if I took 'shrooms or something, but then again the bar for what I might like while chemically altered is so low why even offer it? If I were in a coma, I would sit right through this without complaint. Got it. Cryptozoo exists at that delicate crossroads between arrogant and obnoxious where freshman cosmology majors tend to hang out, free-climbing the outside of the dorm and doing slackrope in the park. Anyway, Lauren realizes in the end that the enemy is Man and becomes a vet, which is also the fate for most of us who started out thinking we were going to change the world and ended up cashing a weekly paycheck signed by the same world. I don't think Cryptozoo is stupid, in other words, though I do think it's intolerable. Violence Voyager, on the other hand: you should check that out.