It is the 1960s and a loved-up, blazed-up hippie couple, sketched in itchy black lines, have snuck into the monochrome nighttime woods to swap bodily fluids and woozy observations on life. Naked and stoned and mumbling about revolutions, they happen on a tall fence and climb it, entering, unbeknownst to them, the “Cryptozoo” of animators Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski’s combined imagination: a place in which griffins and winged horses keep company with will o’ the wisps, dragons and a startled unicorn.
If the sex and politics (complete with doubtless accidental but nonetheless yoinks-worthy reference to “storming the Capitol”) make this gorgeously psychedelic illustrated adventure appear more adult than the filmmakers’ 2016 debut, “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea,” it’s slightly misleading. The drawing style is more mature — the lines slenderer, the transitions more inventive, the watercolored hues richer and more strange, featuring mottled mossy greens, dusky pinks and cloudy blues. But the storytelling retains a childlike, sometimes childish quality, a naivete that can be frustrating and often rather enchanting.
The lovers are Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera), and the facility they’ve infiltrated is not the military installation they suspect, but a refuge for endangered and misunderstood mythical creatures — hailing from the folklores and legends of a hundred different cultures — that the wider world either does not believe in, fears or wants to exploit. Amber and Matthew’s encounter with the unicorn ends bloodily, but this is less their story than it is that of Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), the zoo’s chief advocate and the most fearless and tireless protector of cryptids (the collective name for all these extraordinary entities) in the world.
Lauren, drawn like Rosetti painting Indiana Jones, with her pre-Raphaelite face and her strong, broad, capable body, has been fascinated with cryptids since, as a child on a postwar military base in Okinawa, she encountered a baku, a dream-eating creature of Japanese legend, who like a reverse-BFG, benignly removed her nightmares from her head, allowing her to sleep soundly. And so while she has brought hundreds of creatures back to the Cryptozoo “sanctuary”, which is the brainchild of wealthy, idealistic Joan (Grace Zabriskie), when Lauren hears that the baku has been spotted, she resolves to find and rescue it. Otherwise, with shades of “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park,” it will fall into the clutches of the military, led by sneering zealot Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan).
Lauren’s search, on which she’s joined by gorgon sidekick Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), takes her to strip clubs and tarot readers, to forlorn shacks in foreign countries and dusky towns in Kentucky. Often we zip from one to another along a cartoon-strip-style split-screen, or on a clever, cinematic match-cut. She’s helped and hindered by an untrustworthy, debaucherous faun called Gustav unmistakably voiced by Peter Stormare and given his own pan-pipes-and-maracas theme amid John Carroll Kirby’s pleasantly eclectic score. And before the adventure ends, she will ride both in a military helicopter and on the back of a golden-winged Pegasus. All along, she and Phoebe have ideological discussions, especially about the zoo. Is it a haven or a prison, and will the proposed tourists look on its occupants with awe and respect, or as circus freaks.
The authorities think that if they weaponize the baku — here imagined as a piglet with an elephant’s trunk whose fleece is made of little spirals that curl into themselves and evaporate like froth — they can remove the dreams of radicals and revolutionaries, which would then secure their dystopian stranglehold on power and order. This glossing over of the inherent ambivalence of dreams — how many of us actually dream out literal plans for the future when we sleep? — is just one way Shaw’s story design feels overly simplistic, with the plotting an odd combination of hard-nosed and hippy-dippy.
But then the ostensibly grown-up “Cryptozoo,” despite its occasional utopianism versus pragmatism college-debate-style dialogue, is mostly as thematically straightforward and morally binary as any kids’ film (and possibly more so, given the complexity achieved at times by Pixar or the uncanny, amoral mysticism of Ghibli). And its allegorical power, despite the presence of so many wondrous supernatural beings, and the references to everything from Greek myth to the Garden of Eden to Celtic fairytale, maxes out at a kind of generalized “be respectful of folks who look different to you.” But even the most simplistic sentiment can be made resonant when rendered in such labor-of-love artwork, when the grandiose and grotesque characters are drawn and voiced with such individuality, and when the lavishly textured backgrounds fill every frame to bursting with eccentric detail. In this zoo, the story may be tame, but the images, and the imagination that releases them, run wild.