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‘Cryptozoo’ Review: Bakus & Gorgons & Satyrs – Oh My!

AWN’s Miscweant examines Dash Shaw’s new animated feature film, set in ‘surreal’ 1967, about an activist group trying to protect supernatural cryptids from amoral government agents.

They say, “If you remember the 1960s you weren’t there.” However, if you were there (and dropped enough acid) you might remember the chimeras and supposedly mythical beasts populating the animated feature Cryptozoo.

Set in 1967 (according to the wall calendar in the sleazy strip club owner’s office), Cryptozoo is the work of “visionary” (their word, not mine) filmmaker and comic book artist Dash Shaw, whose previous animated feature was 2016’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Here a band of activists (usually described as “rag-tag”) try to rescue not-so-imaginary “cryptids” and protect them from your standard amoral government agent out to turn their supernatural abilities into magic-powered weapons. (In his attitude and narrative role, Nicholas is reminiscent of Castle in the Sky’s Mark Hamill-voiced Muska.)

Shaw’s idiosyncratic, thin line-style translates well into animation. Eschewing smooth inbetweening, animation director Jane Samborksi instead goes for a surreal, almost weightless atmosphere, enhanced from time to time with colorful psychedelic (there, I said it) effects. Shots overlap so we see the end of one shot and the beginning of the next in the same frame, or an enlarged version of the foreground action serving as the shot’s background.

The film begins with a pair of naked stoner hippies discovering a mile-high fence in the middle of the woods. After sharing an amazingly prescient daydream (“thousands of people storming the Capitol…the pigs were there guarding it, then we broke through & started a whole new perfect society” - the publicist tells me the film was completed last year!) they discover an exceptionally tall fence. Climbing it, they see a castle in the distance. (“Far out, it’s like the home of Walt Disney! There could be magic here or a utopia - use your imagination!”)

Magic, indeed; after a pointed encounter with a unicorn the pair disappear from the film until its last act. In the meantime the narrative is taken up by those rag-tag activists, both human and cryptid, trying to stay one step ahead of Nicholas (who -spoiler! - is being aided by a turncoat within their midst).

Cryptozoo has no shortage of these fantastical beings: familiar ones like centaurs and lesser-known beasts like two-headed birds, the world’s largest snake (at least a quarter-mile long with the circumference of an SUV), adorable polish “kazareks,” a headless guy with his face in his chest and a gorgon (“I’m not Medusa, I’m a gorgon”) who tranquilizes her snakes to “fit in” and be with her human boyfriend.

But the key beast sought by both the activists and Nicholas is the “baku,” an adorable creature resembling a baby elephant who feeds on dreams, both good and bad. If Nicholas gets his hands on it, the government will use it to end the dreams of the counter-culture and suck them away into nothing. “Without dreams,” he explains, “there can be no future.”

The activists have their own disagreements: one wants to house them in a theme park to educate the public (and sell cryptid-themed merchandise) while the others simply want to hide them from the world. (“The best we can hope for,” says the gorgon “is to be treated like circus freaks.”)

The film ends with a wedding and a funeral, “circle of life” and all that. Anyone interested in a more challenging animated feature than the standard Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks etc. fare (most of which I love, don’t get me wrong) will have their dreams enhanced, not stolen by Cryptozoo.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.