“For a while, the script had a Picasso quote on the front that said anything that you can imagine is real,” director Dash Shaw says about his new hand-drawn animated feature film, Cryptozoo, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 29. “And I like that quote because it’s about the power of imagination and how everything that is real to us first began in imagination,” Shaw says. “Everything man made—from a physical invention to how a whole society would operate—has to kind of begin as a dream.”
Shaw’s dream of an animated movie about a preserve where undiscovered, and even magical, creatures (known as cryptids) are kept in order to protect them from the outside world, was inspired in part by the works of one of the earliest pioneers of the artform. “Winsor McCay was an early animator-cartoonist that I love, and he had done an animated short from the 1900s that he had never finished called The Centaurs,” says Shaw. “He also did Gertie the Dinosaur, so that’s like, very, very early animation, and his first cartoons were always depicting things that live action can’t do … And I thought when I saw that Centaurs short, I kind of wondered what it would have been like if he had finished it, and about using drawing as … the only way to view these creatures that can’t be photographed, because they’re imaginary.”
“Everything man made—from a physical invention to how a whole society would operate—has to kind of begin as a dream.”
Shaw also drew inspiration from his wife, Jane Samborski, who served as the Animation Director on the film and who runs an all-female Dungeons & Dragons group. “That kind of inspired the primarily female cast of the movie and also something that would be fun for her to contribute to,” Shaw says.
Cryptozoo is set during the 1960s and centers around Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), a cryptozoologist who is tracking a Baku, a legendary hybrid creature who eats dreams by attaching its trunk-like snout to a person’s forehead and sucking them out. But Lauren isn’t the only one looking for the Baku, and some shadowy government figures want to use it to neutralize the counterculture movement by taking away their dreams.
“It felt like a creature that I hadn’t seen in a movie before,” Shaw says of the Baku, explaining that it was also a creature that seemed connected to film. “Films are so good at creating a dream state, and I don’t mean that it’s just like a bunch of weird stuff happening, I just mean, like, you watch them in the dark and … they can kind of replace your consciousness for that 90 minutes that you’re in front of it and sort of replicate a dreamstate.”
Cryptozoo is Shaw’s second animated feature, and his first to play at Sundance. While some filmmakers may be bothered by losing out on the theatrical experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shaw, who is prolific in the medium of graphic novels, views the virtual format of this year’s festival as being well suited to his film.
“Films are so good at creating a dream state, and I don’t mean that it’s just like a bunch of weird stuff happening.”
“When you’re watching it in an audience, the audience kind of decides whether something is funny or not funny and kind of coats or labels the emotion on certain scenes,” Shaw says, noting that his films don’t tend to be easily categorized. In some ways, Shaw is happier with the thought of audiences being less reliant on the group experience and being left to react based entirely on their own feelings. “If someone laughs at something, it’s great, but also if they don’t laugh that might be more meaningful, and where the other side of this thing might be striking them in a personal way,” he says.
There is one element of the film where Shaw remains very curious about the audience’s response. Early in the movie, a young hippie named Matthew, voiced by Michael Cera, relates a dream he had where he and his fellow rebels of the counterculture stormed the U.S. Capitol, fighting past the police and establishing a new society. “I wrote and storyboarded this when Obama was President, and then the first voice recordings were in the early months of the Trump presidency,” Shaw says, explaining that animation is such a long process that the dialogue was written years ago. “I had no idea what these last four years were going to look like—as you know, no one did,”he says. “It makes me think about that idea, ‘The Beholder’s Share,’ that art is completed in the viewer’s mind, and that that’s where the art happens, really. Meaning that you kind of provide the pieces, but it is connected in the audience’s mind and inside that person’s mind, and they’re really kind of participating in the context and meaning of the movie. And that happens in the beholder’s time as opposed to the time when you drew that background … but it is wild.”
Shaw is currently working on a new book and is planning another fantasy-based feature film. Cryptozoo premieres Friday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m., and the film will play again Sunday, January 31 at 8:00 a.m.