At the cryptozoo

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

Black Rock

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton in Black Rock



Three young women are chased around an island by three crazed ex-soldier guys in Katie Aselton’s boo-goes-there horror story which would slot nicely into the big book of feminist films if it weren’t for the gratuitous (oh come on) nudity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with god-given nakedness. But back to the film. Directed by Aselton and co-written with her partner, Mark Duplass, Black Rock takes three old schoolfriends, Aselton, Lake Bell and Katie Bosworth, sends them off to a remote island they used to visit as kids, but not before pointing out that one of the three did something bad with another of the trio’s boyfriend some years back, and that the wound is still suppurating.

Out on the island, the girls (“women” doesn’t seem quite right; “ladies” definitely not) bump into three ex-army guys, one of whom is a vague friend of a friend. But things go from uneasily friendly to extremely nasty in a short time after a bit of booze, some unwise campfire flirting with one of the soldiers, a rape attempt and retaliation in the form of a big lethal rock to the skull.

The other two guys – we have just learnt that they got dishonourable discharges for some seriously nasty shit out in Afghanistan – decides for justice in the form of death.

But I’m telling you the plot when what all you want to know about is the nudity. Well, you could say that it is justified by the story Aselton is telling, since two of the girls have swum out to a boat, failed to get into it and are now back on dry land in wet clothes and the quickest way to get warm is… take your clothes off?

Does it last long? No. Does it matter? Maybe, because though Aselton is a good actress (though her showing in The Puffy Chair is all I’m going on) I’m not sure about her as a director.

But she’s competent enough for a cat-and-mouse thriller that flirts with themes of sex, power and violence – Should women be able to cocktease for ever and get away with it? Is sex a form of power that women use over women too? – only to abandon them as the film slides into its final third.

Director Aselton moves things along briskly, gets decent “girls together” performances from her cast and knows how to squeeze atmosphere from a restless camera, minimal rig and a soundtrack of strings and washy synths.

But I’m not sure it’ll be remembered for any of those things, so much as being the film in which a female director asked her cast to get naked because the script strictly demanded it.


© Steve Morrissey 2013


Black Rock – at Amazon