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Independent, hand-drawn, adult animation is rare, as Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro said at the premiere of Cryptozoo, which puts Dash Shaw’s busy and quirky adventure in pretty much the same category as its subject matter.

A cryptid, an early intertitle card informs us, is a creature whose existence is unsubstantiated, or who remains hidden. As in a cryptic crossword, you have to look beyond the surface to see what is really there. And a cryptozoo is where our hero, Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell) is employed as a kind of Indiana Jones swashbuckler, travelling the world to bring crypto-animals like the velue, the gorgon and the karzelek back to the zoo, where they’ll be safe from predators like Nicholas (voice: Thomas Jay Ryan), a trader in exotica who doesn’t particularly care if he brings them in dead or alive.

Lauren’s mission this time out is to locate the legendary baku, a small orange creature with tusks and an elephant’s trunk that can eat dreams. A creature that is both literally and in a 1960s “groovy, baby” kind of way “out of sight”, possibly because it doesn’t exist.

Lauren, cryptozoo badass
Cryptozoo badass Lauren

The utopian Lauren versus the capitalistic Nicholas is how many commentators have seen this tussle, but there isn’t much of an analysis of either world view. Instead, Shaw takes an outsider v bad guy ready-made scenario off the shelf and adapts it to his own ends, populating his story with a horde of weird creatures. It’s the X-Men idea of misfits being hounded by a conformist world that can’t accept difference. Though setting everything in hippie-era America, where far-outness is expected and nudity seems to be almost mandatory does give the film its own distinct flavour and a certain quirky humour. Warning: if shakily drawn penises give you the willies, you’re probably best not bothering.

Shaw’s own ends are artistic rather than philosophical. This is an exercise in a semi-naive form of animation, influenced to an extent by early 20th-century animation pioneer Winsor McCay, best known for his comic strip Little Nemo, though the simple, almost kids-colouring-book style with a disregard for strict rules of perspective is Shaw’s own. He’s not afraid to mix it up. With her strong jaw, cascading hair and severe features, Lauren is a cartoon version of Jane Morris, the muse of the pre-Raphaelites, and at key moments there’s psychedelia and kaleidoscopics that wouldn’t be too out of place in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

The whimsicality is Wes Anderson’s, though, and I suspect Shaw is a fan, though even Anderson at his most fey has a storyline stronger than the one here, which tends towards the one-damn-thing-after-another. Anderson also likes characters with flavour, and Shaw’s hero, Lauren, is a touch on the bland side. Imagine the Indiana Jones movies with no Indie – it’d just be one boring setup after another.

For all that, things do get going towards the end, when a series of fairly bland encounters with humans and beasts finally gives way to a “cryptids assemble!” finale that gets all the creatures onto the screen at the same time, or as many as will fit.

Here, Shaw and his animation director Jane Samborski demonstrate a real gift for eye-catching visual effects rendered in the simplest of ways – a shimmering background, a white line on black paper background, a silhouette.

Busy, sometimes to the point where it appears to be nervous about nailing its colours to any one stylistic mast, it’s the sort of thing that hippies might indeed have watched back in the day, deriving meaning from Cryptozoo thanks to an assist from a good whack of LSD.

Cryptozoo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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