Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw

 

Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).

His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.

The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.

However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?

There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.

What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.

My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.

The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
After Antarctica

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea


A wonderland of turgid prose.

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alex Karpovsky, Louisa Krause, John Cameron Mitchell, Matthew Maher, Emily Davis. Directed by Dash Shaw

When an animated feature starts off with a warning that the movie features stroboscopic effects that may negatively affect people with photosensitive epilepsy, one isn’t sure to take it seriously or as the movie’s first joke. Not for nothing; take it seriously.

This is one of the most imaginative and self-consciously hip animated features to come along in quite awhile. It feels like an online comic strip come to life which is no coincidence since Shaw is a noted online comic artist whose Bottomless Belly Button has won a good deal of online acclaim. The dialogue is snappy with a bored but snarky sensitivity that falls in perfectly with the millennial milieu and I would guess that most people who love online comics are going to do cartwheels when they see this. Virtual cartwheels, anyway.

The plot is basically The Poseidon Adventure on acid; two good friends, Dash (Schwartzman) and Aasif (Watts) are starting their sophomore years at Tides High. They both work for the student newspaper – well, they essentially are the student newspaper along with their editor Verti (Rudolph) whose name is an off-shoot of the Latin word for truth (see, I did learn something in high school). When she develops a crush on Aasif and hands him the plum assignment that Dash wanted, it drives a wedge between the two which is further widened by Dash’s borderline libelous newspaper column about his ex-friend.

However, all that gets swept aside when Dash discovers paperwork that indicates the school’s foundations aren’t up to code and wouldn’t stand up in a natural disaster. Dash tries to tell everyone what’s going on but Principle Grimm (Ryan) shuts him down and nobody believes Dash anyway. Of course, right about then an earthquake knocks the entire high school off the cliff it sits on and into the ocean where it promptly begins to sink.

Dash and Aasif patch things up and along with Verti and Mary (Dunham), a popular girl who turns out to have a heart underneath her shallow exterior as well as Lunch Lady Lorraine (Sarandon), a no-nonsense military sort who has maintained her military skills, are forced to make their way up through the Junior floor and then to the Senior floor before graduating to the roof if they are to survive. They will have to take on Jellyfish attacks, shark attacks, a kangaroo court of jocks, electrical wires and school bus blockages in order to get there.

Shaw uses a variety of techniques, often hand drawn, throughout the film although he generally uses the sort of heavy black markers with crayon-like colors. The movie comes off as a disaster movie produced by Adult Swim animators and written by twenty-something online writers. There’s no doubt what kind of audience this is aimed at and it’s not the underage kind; there are some pretty nasty moments in the film that parents may not want their kids to deal with quite yet.

Shaw has been friends with Schwartzman for years which helped him get the kind of talent he managed to get for the film which include a few cultural touchstones for the Millennial generation, including Dunham, Mitchell and of course Schwartzman himself. Sarandon does a gravelly voiced job as Lunch Lady Lorraine and was one of my favorite characters in the movie.Parents of angst-suffused teenage children may get a vicarious thrill of watching so many teens offed during the course of the film. I know I did.

There is a psychedelic sequence near the end of the movie which I suppose is an attempt to 2001 the hell out of the movie but it runs much too long and slows the momentum of a movie that is already short and sweet. A scant 75 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome other than the aforementioned sequence.

I get that not everybody is going to love this film; it appeals to a younger, more savvy audience that is much more aware of current pop culture. As a result, the film might end up being dated even a few years from now but there is enough humor in it that it might stand on its own two feet as a legacy. Still, this is worth seeking out particularly as I mentioned earlier if you love online comics. It might just rock your world, if that phrase isn’t out of date yet.

REASONS TO GO: There is a good deal of allegory in the film which may lead to some interesting discussions among audience members. It’s sort of a modern “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too surreal for some and the psychedelic sequence is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of teen peril, some drug use and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Belko Experiment