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Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the US indie animation feature Cryptozoo by Dash Shaw.


It takes time to train your dragons (or cryptids). Cryptozoo by cartoonist and director Dash Shaw (animation director: Jane Samborski) is a love tale to the 1960s counterculture, so much needed in the beginning of the conformist 21st century.

Based on cryptozoology claims about semi-mythical animals and 'monsters' (the technical term is here cryptids), and diving into an extensive research into their representation into popular culture, Daniel Shaw imagines a world where cryptids have their own, semi-protected ghetto, called Cryptozoo, run by no-nonsense veterinerian Lauren Grey (Lake Bell). Yet the film starts (like the original Creation story) with an act of hybris: a young couple in the 1960s San Francisco after having sex in the woods, discover almost by mistake Cryptozoo and its very high fence - the man provokes and is killed by the Unicorn, while his partner Amber (Louisa Krause) is left to kill the beast.

Cut to Lauren Grey, who needs to protect baku, a Japanese pig/elephant creature who sucks up dreams, and proves to be a very powerful weapon in the military as well. She needs to get help by a cryptid herself, the Gorgon-like Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) and find traces of its existence -before the military takes control of it.

Drawn in opaque yet simple designs (Shaw professes a love for Winsor's McCay drawing style), Cryptozoo relies much on its hallucinatory, LSD-infected atmosphere, which can be a parade of strong lights, and translucent objects. Unlike its title, the main course of action occurs outside Cryptozoo itself, which makes the film a road adventure movies of sorts, and a truthful (but somehow limited) aim to restore a counterculture now long lost.

In terms of characterization, Shaw is careful to distinguish between the uses cryptids (our 'aliens') are used for: pleasure is one, utility is another, and selfless love is a third option. Different characters in the film (and really imaginative character designs) take turns in making Lauren Grey's job easier or simply unbearable. Which works as an added benefit here, for the main character won't let her own backstory go to the surface and enrich her own motivation.

'Cryptozoo' is sometimes preoccupied too much with a fanfare of different episodes, and in its 90 minutes of running time the different characters have a hard time to register. Leave it to the inspired design to connect all the dots; that said, its kaleidoscopic character and its visual impression of an ancient tableau somehow unfolding before your very own eyes, serves its purposes. As one character says, Utopias never work out -but perhaps dreams do.

Vassilis Kroustallis

Cryptozoo is screening at US theaters and is also available for streaming.

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