Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In a U.S. base on Okinawa, just after World War II, a little girl dreams of the atom bomb. A creature called the Baku comes to eat her nightmares. 

This girl, named Lauren and played by Lake Bell (“In a World”), grows up to become a Cryptid rescuer, saving beings like the Baku from those who seek to imprison or exploit them. She takes the creatures to the Cryptozoo, just outside San Francisco. 

Written and directed by Dash Shaw (“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”), “Cryptozoo” debuted as part of Sundance’s “Next” series, which they describe as “original visions and genre-defying work.” A kaleidoscopic vision that’s completely hand-drawn, “Cryptozoo” is more than just original — it’s a singular, electrifying vision. 

During the Q&A session following the film, Shaw cited a quote from Picasso as inspiration: “Everything you can imagine is real.” Under the supervision of Animation Director Jane Samborski (“Hitiro The Peasant”), “Cryptozoo” fulfills this promise, making incredible use of its animated composition to bring its fantastical narrative to chimeric life. 

Each frame, literally a painting, bursts with color, texture and secrets. The visuals also transform to suit the story’s mood, going anywhere from the photo-realistic to the insanely abstract, conveying emotion so powerful it becomes overwhelming. 

Inspired by the aesthetic and perspective of late 1960s radical art, the movie’s no-holds-barred approach to sex and violence is also startlingly unique in American animation, giving the story a lingering weight that’s hard to shake. It’s a beautiful acid trip combined with a nightmare, then illustrated by Blake, Bosch and Basquiat. 

The film is set in 1967 when Lauren is on a race to find the Baku before the U.S. government captures it. The Feds seek to use its dream-eating powers to consume those of the counterculture, snuffing out the hippies and protesters for good. Traveling with a Gorgon (one of the snake-haired beasts of Greek mythology) named Phoebe, who Shaw described as a “human-passing” Cryptid, Lauren’s quest takes her from snowy Russian peaks to a small Kentucky town. Led by Bell, the cast, which includes Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”) and Grace Zabriskie (“Twin Peaks: The Return”), sells the wonder and agony of a world where Cryptids walk among us. 

“Cryptozoo” combines the speculative wit of Kurt Vonnegut, the visual surrealism of David Lynch and the aloof humor of Wes Anderson, with a helping of “Jurassic Park.” It’s more than this clumsy approximation, though. “Cryptozoo” isn’t just strange for strangeness’s sake — there’s a reason behind its madness, a bedrock of meaning beneath its shimmering psychedelic veneer. 

“Cryptozoo” is about being strange in America. Be it different races, sexualities, gender identities or species, this country has not been kind to those who aren’t WASPs. The movie references imperialism, marriage and Disney World but, however, it’s manifested, the Cryptids are violently oppressed by an imposed normality, which seeks to snuff out their colorful lives. They’re assaulted, demeaned, boxed in or given a price tag by every human they meet. It’s no wonder they want to escape. 

In 2021, when American institutions have wrought more havoc than they have in decades, the box office charts are dominated by carbon-copies and humans continue destroying the environment, “Cyptozoo’s” anthemic strangeness couldn’t have come at a better time.

Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at warricka@umich.edu.