Cryptozoo: Inside the Must-See Mythical Animated Movie

Mythical creatures, cryptids, and a psychedelic setting are the order of the day in Dash Shaw's Cryptozoo.

Cryptozoo animated movie
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Writer, artist, and director Dash Shaw’s adult animated fantasy film Cryptozoo is a morality play masquerading as a dark reflection of Jurassic Park. In that film, dinosaurs were brought back to life through DNA and put on display. Cryptozoo does the same with cryptids, which are mythological creatures who have teased mankind’s imagination since the dawn of civilization.

Cryptozoo is set in 1967 San Francisco, a time of civil unrest, disobedience and oppression, and the cryptids are facing the same kind of suppression as hippies like Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera), but on a far more mythic level. Military minds want to weaponize the cryptids, putting them in a prison camp, while they study what makes these things tick. Well-meaning and animal loving zookeeper Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and her assistant Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), prefer they are kept in what they see as a Garden of Eden. They house free-roaming cryptids at the Cryptozoo, which is still a large cage where people can gape at the mysteries of hidden evolution.

All the cryptids in the movie come from actual mythologies. In the film, Lauren travels the world to find the rarest cryptid, the Baku, before the army does. The Baku eats dreams, and the military wants to use her to annihilate the dreams of the counterculture. Best known as an author of graphic novels like Bottomless Belly Button (2008), Body World (2010), New School (2013), and Cosplayers (2014), Shaw lucidly dreams in vivid and colorful counterculture, guided by the illustrative designs of his wife Jane Samborski, who serves as Animation Producer on Cryptozoo.

Shaw’s first animated feature film. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2014), evoked memories of the disaster film Titanic. Cryptozoo is a psychedelic trip over Jurassic Park, merging multiple stories and genres into a collagelike narrative. Movies are more like dreams than comics, able to make the same kinds of leaps of logic. Shaw spoke with Den of Geek about the nightmares on the dark side of mythology.

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Den of Geek: What told you Cryptozoo should be a film rather than a book?

Dash Shaw: When I was researching it, I came across the Baku, the dream-eating creature. I think movies, more than any other medium, can really replicate a dream. Even in a normal live-action movie, like a weird dream-like leap in space and time.

With comics, you’re always puzzling something out. Meaning something as simple as “do I read this sentence before I look at the picture” or you have a decoding brain screen on, like a movie in a dark room, it can replace your consciousness in a dreamlike way.

A dream-eating creature felt like a perfect centerpiece for a movie and especially for a movie that’s about how, if imagination is the most important thing, then imagination should run wild.

I know this film was a five-year project. Was the line about storming the Capitol written before January 6? Was it prophetic or commentary?

We recorded Michael Cera saying that in 2017, and it was written in 2015 and 2016. It premiered at Sundance that January. Saying prophetic sounds like a terrifying thing. But it was not written after the fact.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the casting process? Did you go after the actors or was there a casting call?

Well, I was very lucky. I recorded Michael Cera and Louisa Krause, they were the first people on board, in 2017. I made that the first 10 minutes of the movie so when I went to Lake Bell, I could show her the first 10 minutes of a movie and be like, this is what the movie is gonna be like. Are you psyched about this? And that’s how I got the other actors.

But then also, I designed the characters after they had been voice recorded. I didn’t draw them before and then stick people’s voices into them, because I wanted to get some inspiration from the actors. Lake Bell didn’t know what her character was going to look like when she voiced her because she hadn’t been designed yet, drawn yet.

Do you visualize the style of animation while you’re writing the script?

Yeah, definitely, when I first tried to make these movies, my idol, and still my idol, was Hayao Miyazaki. With Miyazaki, it was just storyboards, and they write a script based on his boards. Coming from drawing comics, that just made total sense to me, that it would initially be a visualization of the movie.

But I found that I could never get a movie going that way, especially in the United States, and being an aspiring filmmaker in my 20s at that point, I just couldn’t convince anyone to participate based on a bunch of weird drawings.

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So then, so then the script writing becomes sort of the way to in word form, like describe, describe the imagery, so it’s like I hope that they’re very visual scripts that I then storyboarded and so when I’m often doing the initial sketch to send to a particular background painter.

How much research did you do into the mythology of the cryptids?

I have to give a lot of credit to Jane Samborski, the animation director and my wife, because she painted most of the cryptids in the movie. She looked into the representations of the creatures from their source culture, and not only in how they were painted, but also in how they moved. Because so many of these old paintings, they are still, obviously, but they suggest movement. 

If you watch Cryptozoo, it’s obvious that we’re trying to take something that would have been like a still painting, and animating it in a way that still retained some of that to the painterly quality.

Like, for that movie that you mentioned, Fantastic Planet, they were obviously very inspired by Hieronymus Bosch paintings. It feels like a Bosch painting come to life. I hope we have some of that energy in our movie too.

Of the adaptations of cryptids, in literature and art, which artists spoke to you?

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Wow, that’s a huge question. Katsushika Hokusai did a drawing of the Baku from the 1800s. And of course, my key inspiration was Winsor McCay, who did this unfinished short film from 1921 called The Centaurs. It’s on YouTube, it has sexy half nude centaurs and a dark collage forest environment. I saw it in 2015 and that’s when I started thinking: What if this what if there was a whole movie that was mythological creatures that also had some of this adult feeling.

I really recommend that Winsor McCay short. The unicorn tapestries at the Met Cloisters, those are at the beginning of the movie, The Last Unicorn, but I could rattle them off forever.

It was very nice of you to give a lesson in Tarot. Was there a reason you chose the deck drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith?

Absolutely, that’s my favorite deck. I wanted to highlight that deck.  It’s the most well-known deck, but somehow, people who are into tarot look down on it. But I love it.

Did you also do research on the Order of the Golden Dawn? She was a member.

That’s not really part of my movie, but I collect different tarot decks. And I hope it’s suggested in the movie that it has a lot of different collectors. And Cryptozoo, and the four-card reading they do in the movie, I do them every day after lunch. I just do the readings for myself. And I thought it’s a great artistic practice. There’s a lot of dream logic in the film.

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Do you actively lucid dream?

I guess people define that in different ways. But yeah, I pay attention to it. I listen. If I get messages to do something from dreams, I really try to follow it. Jane, my wife, I had a lot of dreams that I should marry her and almost nightmares where I didn’t propose to her. I proposed to her the week of those dreams.

I hope my books and my movies feel like something that you dreamed. I think a lot of comic artists have this feeling. They go to sleep, and they come across the most amazing, weird book that was shaped differently than every other book, that was colored differently than any other book. And you’re like, trying to hold on to this book and you don’t want to wake up. How can you wake up while still holding the book in your hands?

So Cryptozoo, I really feel is almost like you saw a mainstream blockbuster movie while you were sick and half asleep. And you’re trying to remember what this giant blockbuster movie was like, but it’s arriving distorted or defamiliarized.

What drew you to set the film in ‘60s San Francisco when Reagan was governor in the Vietnam War?

Around the time when I saw the Winsor McCay short, there were two other things going on. One is Jane had this all-women’s Dungeons & Dragons group that would meet at our place. I wanted to write something that she would enjoy participating in. I think she painted all or most of the cryptids in the movie. And I think that also inspired the mostly-female cast and the globetrotting nature of the movie.

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But the other thing was: I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and one of the other fellows there was researching countercultural newspapers of the 1960s. And the library had all of them. So, it’d be like a 1967, free weekly paper in Brazil, and that same week in Chicago, and they all have this incredible, utopian optimism, and also paired with almost like a fantasy art sort of aesthetic. 

I started thinking about the death of Walt Disney as the key point in 1966, and Epcot Center, when it was going to be his actual utopian city where people would live. And after his death, it was turned into just another amusement park, that we know now.

I love how you took the time to give us Phoebe, the Gorgon, talking to her fiancé in the hotel room. Can you tell me what you’re trying to say about normalization?

There’s a section in the middle of the movie where we’re seeing them in spaces where you don’t normally see them. An X-Men movie wouldn’t have that domestic scene in the middle of it. I guess that was a goal. I wanted to insert a very real scene where a couple are bickering and she’s got this job that’s important to her and, and he wants more of her time. And I thought that putting this inside the movie is like what a lot of the things in the movie are like, where it’s a very real thing, next to a very imaginary or unreal thing. And the proximity to those two things is uncomfortable or weird or just a frequency that I thought would be exciting to see on screen.

Do you think there’s a possibility these creatures existed in some form, or needed to be created?

Well, the position that my movie takes is that they are imaginary. To me, they’re like the imaginations of the culture, the stories of the culture, almost like the radical artworks, these radical imaginations or radical ideas. Cryptozoo is an attempt to introduce these imaginations. Often, in an attempt to make something popular, essentially, you damage them. So, that’s the position of the movie and the situation of the movie.

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Personally, I think a lot of them are hybrid creatures, meaning they’re combinations of two beings that exist in our world. I look, through my eyes, at beings that exist in this world, and they do seem quite amazing, amazing, even just human beings. So, I guess I would like to think I would treat something that is half one creature and half another creature the same as a creature that I already know exists.

When the fish is released, are you saying that all creatures are mythological, magical creatures?

I’m saying that, in the context of the movie, the cryptids are the imaginations of the culture and then outside of the context of the movie me personally. I have a five-year-old daughter, she doesn’t know what exists and what doesn’t exist in the world yet. So often, when you’re introducing someone to the world, you see things through the eyes of a five-year-old seeing something for the first time, and it probably looks pretty startling, unusual and dreamlike. I have a great picture of when she was two or three years old, seeing a giraffe for the first time, and she might as well be looking at a dinosaur.

Cryptozoo is currently available on Blu-ray and VOD.