I struggle with parsing out how sincerely to take Dash Shaw’s movies. Both his debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, and its follow-up, Cryptozoo, present a bizarre clash of far-out psychedelia in their animation & laidback aloofness in their storytelling. His hand drawn 2D characters casually stroll through apocalyptic crises rendered in expressive, kaleidoscopic multimedia meltdowns. Meanwhile, their personalities are decidedly inexpressive, mumbling about their often-inane internal conflicts in apparent obliviousness to the chaos around them. Cryptozoo at least pushes that internal fretting into bigger questions about the ethical & political conflicts of its psychedelic fantasy world. It’s just difficult to determine how much those conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much are an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology. Shaw’s films are never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them. His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.
As the title alludes, Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy film about a futuristic zoo for cryptids: dragons, unicorns, sasquatches, gorgons, etc. The battlefield for its central conflict is a world where cryptids are suddenly plentiful but violently distrusted by the general human public – X-Men style. The warring factions in discerning how humans should relate to these mythical creatures are “conservationists” who want to centrally locate the cyptids in a Disney World-like “zoo” and militarists who want to deploy them as biological weapons. It’s a distinctly capitalist paradigm, where every single resource—including living creatures—must serve one of two purposes: money or military. The warmongers are obviously the “bad guys” in that debate, but the supposed “sanctuary” alternative of the cryptozoo must earn enough money to stay afloat, which leads to the cryptids’ captivity & exploitation in an amusement park setting by the supposed “good guys”. This convoluted mythology is debated in solemn, conversational tones while extravagant, badass illustrations of the cryptids themselves roar in the background. How seriously you’re supposed to take those debates and how meaningful their themes are outside the confines of the film are a matter of personal interpretation, something I’ve yet to settle on myself.
Part of my struggle with how sincerely relate to Cryptozoo might be a result of viewing it through a modern-animation context, where I’m comparing it against other recent psychedelic oddities like The Wolf House, Violence Voyager, and Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Despite its crudely layered multimedia approach to animation, the film is more likely spiritually aligned with fantasy films of the 1970s & 80s – titles like Heavy Metal, Wizards, and Gandahar. In that era, animated fantasy epics were all intensely sincere allegories about pollution, prejudice, and ethnic genocide. Cryptozoo‘s messaging is a little more resistant to 1:1 metaphor, but I’ll at least assume that its musings on the corrupting force of capitalism is politically sincere. It’s a little hard to immediately latch onto that sincerity when your film opens with a nudist stoner voiced by Michael Cera being gored by a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean the entire resulting conflict is meant to be taken as a joke. Realistically, the only reason I’m putting this much consideration into its dramatic sincerity at all is because the imaginative color-pencil drawings that illustrate its conflicts are objectively badass, making the rest of the film worth contending with instead of outright dismissing as stoner nonsense. I’m buying what Dash Shaw is selling, though I’m still not sure why.