Review: “Cryptozoo”

“Cryptozoo” is what you get when you give a four-year-old amalgamation of Robert Breer and Hunter S. Thompson a box of crayons. It is available on demand and in theaters starting on August 20.


Directed by Dan Shaw, “Cryptozoo” is a new animated adventure. Mythological creatures called cryptids star in the film, available in theaters beginning August 20. (Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, Abroad Arts Editor

Dazzling does not cut it; Dash Shaw makes films that embody what Humphry Osmond must have envisioned when he coined the term “psychedelic.” Beautifully animated and gloriously assembled, Shaw’s film “Cryptozoo” represents one of the most exciting animated investigations into the world of imagination in years. 

At the crossroads of Marcell Jankovics and a 10-year-old’s dream, “Cryptozoo” examines otherness through a fantastical lens that modernizes Aesop’s attempts to instill knowledge through fables. “Cryptozoo” presents a rich tapestry of images that hold even denser emotional folds. It employs mesmerization as a means of appealing to viewers’ hearts with its environmental themes. 

The film follows Laura Gray (Lake Bell), an adventurous super-veterinarian who traverses the globe trying to save mythical creatures known as cryptids from the black market. Upon completing a rescue, she offers them a safe haven in Cryptozoo, Calif. where her mentor, Joan (Grace Zabriskie) has built an enormous refuge for them to live safely. However, questions probe whether Joan’s safe-space, with its massive, fortified walls somewhere in sylvan California is actually more of a holding pen (it has “zoo” as a suffix after all). Questions about care, liberty, independence and nurture take hold of the film’s narrative with ranging degrees of consciousness. 

These themes become of particular importance once Phoebe — voiced with the same wryness Angeliki Papoulia brought to her roles in Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” and “Alps” — is introduced. Phoebe is a Gorgon, like Medusa, and a new recruit at Cryptozoo. Given Phoebe has to tranquilize the snakes that make up her hairdo on a daily basis and wear contacts to avoid turning people to stone, she finds herself fantasizing about a world where cryptids can roam the world freely, despite their eccentricities. 

It is through this lens that Shaw explores themes of inclusion and exclusion. At the end of the day, “Cryptozoo” is about belonging, believing in yourself, and the pain of those who are marginalized and persecuted. It’s not necessarily anything new for the animation genre to tackle given the numerous moral kids’ tales churned about by studios like Dreamworks and Pixar, but it’s the idiosyncratic nature of Shaw’s approach to these themes that sets “Cryptozoo” apart. Well, that, and the heavily R-rated qualities of Shaw’s story.

Shaw does not sugarcoat the fantastical realities of mythological black markets and violent military affairs. A man is impaled by a unicorn within the first five minutes of the film, and sex is aplenty in “Crytpozoo,” but it works, grounding Shaw’s script in a tangible reality akin to that of Bill Willingham’s “Fables.” After all, this is not the work of Pixar or Dreamworks, it is the work of an independent artist. For that reason, it’s more in line with a Grimm’s fairy tale than any of its Disney reboots. 

As it stands, Shaw might be the only true American cartoonist working in long-form animation these days. With “Cryptozoo” and his last feature, “My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea,” he demonstrated an incredible knack for world-building. Shaw’s approach to storytelling melds comedy and melodrama into a brilliant blend of acrylics that replicate the sensation of staring at patches of a painting for far too long. 

To stare at Van Gogh’s swirls is to get lost in a land of love and to sit through Shaw’s animation is to experience said swirls twenty-frames per second. “Cryptozoo” astounds, with enough bite to make audiences cackle and enough heart to make them swoon. Shaw’s film manifests itself as a work of wonders that will hopefully act as a source of inspiration for many great animators to come.

Email Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]