'Cryptozoo' Is the Wildest Animated Movie You Will See All Year

Lake Bell voices a globetrotting Lara Croft-esque cryptid hunter.

cryptozoo, kamudi fighting army
Magnolia Pictures

Dash Shaw turned heads with his 2016 animated film, the relatably titled comedy-drama My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, which followed a young boy and his friends as they escape their school while it is, yes, sinking into the sea. Now, Shaw and his animation director Jane Samborski are back with a dazzling animated feature geared towards adults that celebrates the beautiful and the bizarre.

Their film Cryptozoo stars the vocal talents of Lake Bell as adventurer and cryptid rescuer Lauren Gray, who travels the globe in search of magical and mythical creatures to bring to a sanctuary called the Cryptozoo. But the movie resembles Jurassic Park in more ways than one, as the well-intentioned purpose of the sanctuary is revealed to be a hollow promise, and Lauren's affection for her beloved yet dangerous animals is put to the test. Shaw and Samborski spoke to Thrillist about the styles of animation they love, how they built their new film around their actors, and their favorite cryptids.

Thrillist: When did you decide that your next movie was going to be this cryptid Jurassic Park?
Dash Shaw: I had seen this early 1921 unfinished short film by Winsor McCay called The Centaurs. It's on YouTube. And it has a great kind of adult sexiness to it. It's like these half-nude centaurs, and a forest that's kind of collage-like. And the fact that it was unfinished was extra inspiring to me—because he did Gertie the Dinosaur and Little Nemo in Slumberland, and he's often credited as inventing animation, although he only invented one part of it. But, he saw drawing as our way of seeing mythological beings. They can't be photographed, you know, they have to be drawn.

Around when I saw that, Jane had an all women's D&D group—[Jane pumps her fists]—and I think that inspired the mostly female cast and the globe-trotting quality of the movie, because that was when we were in Brooklyn, and a lot of those women were from all over the world.

Jane Samborski: Also, around that time, Dash had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and one of his co-fellows was working on countercultural newspapers in the '60s. And what's really interesting about those is that the New York Public Library has copies from all over the globe, but there's this very consistent style that is almost reminiscent of the way that…

Shaw: …Winsor McCay, that Art Nouveau-y kind of fantasy art look. So those things were all mixing together to equal the Cryptozoo script.

cryptozoo
Magnolia Pictures

There's a really distinct look to this movie. Is it watercolor that you used?
Samborski: Yeah. Both the kind of watery painting and the more fully rendered designs for the cryptids are done with gouache, just with a different technique.

What is it like doing an animated movie out of paintings like that?
Shaw: You know, it's a combination of those are the films that I like—

Samborski: Dash means limited animation.

Shaw: Yeah, that's what I want to see on screen. And it's also, at this point, what we know how to do, just technically. We don't know how to do CG animation.

Samborski: The aesthetic choices in the film were partly in reaction to our previous film [My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea], which is sort of overwhelmed by this big dark line, and all the characters are very broad and iconic. And we wanted to swing in the other direction and do fewer drawings, but much more specific drawings. And I love 2-D puppet animation. One of the great transformative moments of my arts education was seeing Lotte Reiniger's Prince Achmed, which is silhouette animation, and it just completely blew my mind. Artistically and for my inner feminist. So, [the style of Cryptozoo] wasn't a compromise, this is what I wanted to do, forever. There's a clear and obvious throughline to this point for me.

It also allows for a higher level of detail, which you probably want in a movie about mythical creatures.
Samborski: Yeah, 3-D animation and the way that animation is incorporated into almost every live action film these days, it's not my cup of tea, but I totally understand the motivation. Like, we build puppets, those people are building puppets. And they're fun to animate. When you're working with puppetry, you are getting a lot of mileage for your work. That's harder with cel animation. So, we were just glad that this medium is available to us, because it marries two of the things that we're very excited about, which is the detail and the motion.

I really liked that the message of this movie and the doomed purpose of the Cryptozoo is, and I wrote this down: "We needed them more than they needed us." They're better off without us meddling, even if that means that left in the wild, they could be in danger.
Samborski: You know, the problem of the Cryptozoo and the problem of bringing radical ideas into the forefront and the problems of conservation, all of these problems are complicated problems. And if there were easy answers, we would have found them already.

I just read this thing about frogs in the rainforest, how there's this scientific facility that has captured a bunch of breeds because they can't survive in the wild anymore, but now they're just in this facility forever.
Shaw: Because I'm just practically a drawer and a painter, and that's what I spend most of my time doing, I have more of an art school kind of perspective on things. So, I tend to think of the cryptids as being our imaginations or radical artworks or the imaginations from all over the world, and the Cryptozoo is like a museum where, like, you love a museum, and you want museums to exist, but how they acquire the objects is problematic, and often somehow, in the way that they're attempting to present them, they're damaging the power of those artworks. So, that's more where my head is at when I'm looking at it. But it definitely has all of these associations that you're making.

cryptozoo lake bell
Magnolia Pictures

I also want to talk about the voice cast, and ask how you went about casting the movie and finding everyone to play these characters.
Shaw: We recorded Michael Cera and Louisa Krause in 2017. Those are the lovers at the beginning of the movie. And we kind of made that section to show the other actors, so they could see what this movie was going to look like. And Lake Bell… you know, when you write a character, you kind of think, like, OK, you need someone who can do this, but also be like this, and when they say this, it has to be meaningful. That's how I do it. I think about technically what they have to do. Besides being all right on that front, the first movie she had written and directed [In a World…] was all about voice acting, and female voices in particular. And I thought that would be super cool, because then we have someone where it feels like her personal mission is aligning with our mission.

All of the people were only drawn after they had been cast and voice recorded. So the way the characters look could take some sideways inspiration from the person. So much of the experience of Cryptozoo is the way Lauren's character loves [the creatures]. She's a very iconic fantasy art Pre-Raphaelite-looking person, and that was suggested by Lake's voice. If you know Grace Zabriskie [the voice of Joan, the Cryptozoo's owner] from Twin Peaks or other things she's done, you can kind of see her soul shooting out of the drawings. All of the characters have to look interesting. We're asking people to look at them, we're putting them on screen.

Samborski: I think Dash and I are both very much following our artistic guiding stars. And one of the things that I have known about Dash for a long time, and it's true about almost every artist, is there are things that we do over and over again. And Dash has a tendency to draw very broad-shouldered masculine women. He doesn't really do sexy, exactly. But it actually plays to our strengths, because we have this nudity, but it isn't exactly sexy nudity. It. It isn't titillating exactly. But it also worked really well for Lauren. When I saw her design I was like, yes, I totally believe this is an ass-kicking badass. This is someone who is going to be able to do this physicality, as opposed to, you go see a superhero movie and you're like, you're a model. I totally believe you're doing a Simone Biles here.

Shaw: Meanwhile, I was totally hoping for those drawings in the beginning of the movie to be sexy [laughs].

Samborski: I also have to give a shout-out. I was so happy when I realized we were going to get an elderly woman in a sex scene in this movie. That is a thing I want to see. That is like me bettering the universe. You never see elderly women's bodies! It's like we're supposed to be ashamed of them or something. And this is making my feminism come out. No, I loved it. I was really glad that made it onto the screen.

And the creatures as well are just so beautiful and so well designed. I have to ask: Which were your favorites?
Shaw: Well, the baku [an elephant-like eater of nightmares] was the main one for me. That's when it became a movie idea and not a comic idea, because movies can be so dreamlike when they're working well. I had seen an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku. At first I didn't know what "baku" meant. And Hokusai had done a drawing of a baku. And then when Jane rendered the baku, the way its ear flickers, and it has a very peaceful quality. The baku might be my favorite character, period, in the movie.

Samborski: I always answer this question from a technical standpoint, because I got to not just design the creatures and execute their paintings, but I was also doing the animation. And in the case of the kamudi [a giant snake], in particular, I was able to pull the inspiration, which in this case was South American stone carving, into the motion of the creature as well in a way that I found very exciting. So that one has a special place in my heart.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.