We know about outsider art, but is there such a thing as outsider animation? If there is, then Cryptozoo certainly belongs to that category. Hollywood could have done up this fantasia in a more polished and less interesting way, if they went in for animated movies for adults. This opens at Grand Berry Theater this week, and it’s the most affecting animated film I’ve seen so far this year.
After a prologue with two stoned 1960s hippies (voiced by Louisa Krause and Michael Cera) having an encounter with a unicorn that doesn’t go the way they expect, the movie turns into a detective story. Our narrator and protagonist is Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a hard-bitten activist who protects griffins, manticores, and other mythic beasts from poachers and black marketeers. She is wounded in a failed attempt to free a captured alkonost, so her boss Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie) assigns her a partner named Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), a Gorgon who uses contact lenses and a wig to move through the world without drawing undue attention. Their target is the baku who cured Lauren of her nightmares when she was a little girl. Now the animal is being hunted by the U.S. government for her dream-eating powers.
This is the work of Dash Shaw, the graphic novelist whose animated feature film debut was the occasionally inspired, melodramatically titled My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. His visual style recalls the 1970s psychedelia of Ralph Bakshi and Eiichi Yamamoto, especially in a scene when Lauren’s quest takes her to a fortune teller (voiced by Zoe Kazan) — her shuffling of the cards in the tarot deck is represented by the cards shuffling themselves in kaleidoscopic patterns. John Carroll Kirby’s score swirling with synthesizers and panpipes is an appropriate touch.
Phoebe is taken aback when she finds out that Lauren and Joan’s planned home for cryptids is a theme park in California, where these beings will be on display or, in some cases, working at the attraction as a way of gradually assimilating into society. The moral ambiguity of this plan makes it sting when Lauren’s nemesis (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), a bounty hunter who dreams of using dragons against the Viet Cong and a hydra against antiwar protesters, gives her his version of the “we’re not so different, you and I” speech. (He’s loathsome, but it is funny that he refers to a Pegasus as a “gay horse.”) Even queasier is the revelation that Joan is having sex with one of the cryptids, the fish man of Liérganes. Amid all this, Peter Stormare is highly amusing as the voice of a satyr who is caught up in the plot even though he only thinks about organizing his next sex orgy. Whatever you might think of locking up animals in zoos, you’ll probably agree that letting them all out of their cages at once is a bad idea. Something like that happens in the monster madness climax that makes this movie weirdly like Jurassic Park.
The animation here is not likely to impress anyone with its sophistication, but that seems beside the point. No one goes to Henry Darger’s drawings (this film’s drawing resembles his) for their realistic depictions of people. They go for the totality and extravagance of his vision. So it is with Cryptozoo, which pairs its menagerie of legendary creatures with some pointed commentary about how we care about animals in ways that can be bad for both them and us. If you’re not visited by a baku, this movie may haunt your dreams.
Voices by Lake Bell and Angeliki Papoulia. Written and directed by Dash Shaw. Not rated.