Cryptozoo (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017)

I don’t often get excited for modern animation. The flat, rounded-out, overly precise digital designs of CG-animated movies, including well-respected behemoths of the medium like Disney & Pixar, are largely uninspiring to me, even if they illustrate a well-told story. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is the perfect antidote to these troubled, CG animation times. Jumping from Fantagraphics-published graphic novels to feature-length filmmaking, visual artist Dash Shaw overwhelms the senses in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea with a tactile, unnecessarily complex visual style that feels like the philosophical opposite of modern CG animation doldrums. Shaw’s loosely sketched figures navigate blindingly colorful backgrounds of ever-shifting multimedia collage, recalling the more psychedelic impulses that invade the black & white stick figure frames of Don Herzfeld’s work or the short-form experiments you might catch in a late-night haze on Adult Swim. This eccentric visual design is paired with an over-the-top, go-for-broke plot (spelled out plainly in the title), but is also tempered by a laid-back, juvenile attitude that calmly strolls through its dizzying whirlpool of ambitious ideas. In a perfect world, a film this visually stunning & naturally cool would gather at least a cult audience through its challenge to the inhuman computer graphics style that typically guides modern animation aesthetics. Instead, My Entire High School Singing into the Sea had a single-week, single-screen theatrical run in New Orleans before disappearing for nearly a full year and then popping up on Netflix to little fanfare. Dash Shaw dared to leave his grubby little fingerprints all over this messy, overly-ambitious debut, delivering the film that modern animation needs, but no audience seems to want.

Jason Schwartzman stars as an unpopular jerk of a high school student who wastes his energy overachieving as a “journalist” for the school newspaper, making this film feel somewhat like an unsanctioned Rushmore sequel. Since he’s both a social nuisance and a known blowhard, his warnings to the student body that the school (which was built both cliffside and on a fault line) is at risk of crumbling at the slightest earthquake are an act of crying wolf. Early in the runtime, this foretold earthquake knocks the entire high school into the adjacent sea and the majority of the film is a Titanic-like race for survival as the building sinks into the water. Schwartzman’s prickly protagonist is joined on his voyage to safety by an impressive voice cast of tagalongs: Reggie Watts & Maya Rudolph as fellow newspaper nerds, Lena Dunham as a Tracy Flick-like over-achiever, and (the MVP of the movie) Susan Sarandon as a tough-as-nails lunch lady who acts as the group’s only muscle. Each speak in hushed, flat voices, incredibly calm in the face of their surroundings burning, crumbling and flooding in ever-worsening mayhem. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a laid-back irreverent comedy, but it does not shy away from the Hellish displays of widespread destruction its over-the-top premise naturally inspires. Our ragtag group of aggressively casual, self-obsessed teens (and their remarkably buff lunch lady) are subjected to the horrors of libraries aflame, flesh-eating miniature sharks, haunted locker rooms, and makeshift dystopian societies that deify social popularity to determine their leaders. It’s all very goofy & flippantly nonchalant about the panic that defines its borders, but it’s also a perilous journey to safety & rescue littered with the blood, guts, limbs, and severed heads of the less-fortunate students who don’t make the cut.

The simplicity of that story is a necessity, as it allows room for the much busier visual assault that obliterates eyeballs for the entirety of the runtime. Before the picture starts, a title card warns of potential risks for inducing photosensitive epilepsy. It becomes immediately apparent why, as just a character running to catch a school bus in the opening scene is a layered, video game-inspired adventure of visual hyperactivity. Dash Shaw’s debut movie is bursting with weirdo experiments that push animation as a medium by remixing older, more hands-on methods into new, stunning arrangements. It’s like the mashup DJ equivalent of a modern animated feature in that way, except that its adoption of past, rudimentary techniques are transformative, not nostalgic. Crayon scribbles, amateur sketchbook doodling, and Prince Achmed-style cutouts supply its elemental building blocks, but their cumulative, layered effect is something much more impressively complex than those D.I.Y. tactics imply. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a simple, irreverent comedy about teen brats winging their way through an absurd, impossible crisis. It’s also a bold vision for how animation can evolve in meaningful, tactile ways without fully succumbing to 100% computerization. And if you don’t personally enjoy what Shaw accomplishes in the picture, don’t worry. His dialogue promises, “Next time I’ll water it down so that it’s shitty and more popular!”

-Brandon Ledet