Animation is somewhat of a rarity at Criterion. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was technically the first, but being an Anderson film, it was hardly any surprise. Watership Down came next, deservedly so, and it was received with acclaim and a desire for more. Now comes an entirely different type of animation, a sort of psycho-surrealism in René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, which is comparatively abstract, unquestionably innovative, unique, dense, but eminently watchable. These releases rely on story and narrative, which of course Planet has, but it is the “vibe” felt within that truly sets it apart as a work of art worthy of curation.
There are two races in Fantastic Planet. The Draags are giant blue aliens living on the planet Ygam. Oms are humans, miniature by comparison, that also inhabit the planet. An infant Om brutally loses his mother at the hand of some Draag children, and he finds himself kept within the family as a pet. He is named Terr and is cherished by Tiva, his “owner.” He ages one year for every week of a Draag’s life, so he is soon aging into adolescence and adulthood, assimilating into Draag culture. Eventually, armed with an abundance of Draag knowledge, he escapes and settles among a group of Om dissidents. His experience proves valuable and he quickly proves his worth.
The time period in which Fantastic Planet originated is essential. Produced in the early 1970s, it is rooted in the May 1968 events in France and the subsequent navel-gazing that followed. This was a free period for young French, similar to the hippie movement in America, but perhaps a little more intellectual and leftist. There was certainly some drug use, and Fantastic Planet is known not only as a deep intellectual endeavor, but also a psychedelic experience. However artistic, the impact while under the influence has certainly contributed to its cult following.
The project originates in the artwork of Roland Topor, who was also the film’s production designer, co-writer, and creator. The animation is hand-drawn by Topor and roughly 25 other artists, many of who were experienced with Czech animation. As the first French animation feature since 1953, the project relied heavily on the Czech animation tradition and probably would not have been made without their assistance. Their aesthetic blends well with Topor’s style of art, which is at once intellectual, incendiary, and simply random. Even if the film is Topor’s brainchild, René Laloux was the force that saw the project to fruition. Even Topor credits the director with realizing his vision, and without the talented animator, the project would have never reached fruition. As Topor says in one of the supplements, it was Laloux that did the heavy lifting.
Compared to computer animation of today and the clean rotoscoped animation of yesterday, the hand drawn animation may look crude to some. However, the animation style is perfectly suited to the unorthodox message and hallucinogenic tone. Certain sequences showcase the style, such as the shimmering Draags whose bodies transform through meditation, which would look too polished and clean using most other animation styles. This is akin to seeing an edgy, independent film with a little grain. It adds to the charm, as do the drawings at showing both the beauty and savagery of this world.
The film cannot be discussed without complementing Alain Goraguer’s hypnotically jazzy score. When listened to without the film’s images (and I tried this), the music is outrageously dated, recognizable upon the first note as being from during the “free love” period. Yet the groovy, catchy tunes are the perfect marriage with Laloux and Topor’s imagery. They blend so seamlessly and infectiously with the action and images that they are inseparable. I’ll admit that when indulging in this film I found myself whistling the refrain all too often. Having seen the film, the music has a life of its own and will remain on my playlist. The score, as much as the imagery and thematic elements, contributes to the film’s immersive appeal.
Topor had an unusual type of art. He was provocative, outrageous, and at times downright silly. He and Laloux had created two short films together, both of which are featured on the Criterion discs. One of them, Les Temps Morts, was unapologetically about death and the other, Les Escargot about war. He remarks that people see metaphors in his work that depend where they are from. For instance, he showed the film in Spain and they saw Franco fascism.
Part of Fantastic Planet’s genius is this seemingly endless metaphorical application. The plot is a fairly simple tale about power, oppression and racism, but it paints with such a broad brush that it can be read in a number of different ways. During my viewing, I thought of the Holocaust, Zionism, Vietnam (from both the French and American perspective), Communism and yes, even Fascism. The one thematic consistency with these readings is that the film delivers a leftist, anti-establishment message, which again is very much in the spirit of a post-1968 world in France.
Along with the depth, creativity, innovation, and technical proficiency, Fantastic Planet is simply a delightful experience. Having watched it twice now, I consider it among the hallmarks of animated film. I ranked it number nine in my recently compiled top science fiction films for Wonders in the Dark. It is yet another example that animated cinema is a work of art along the level of the most esteemed film movements. I hope that Criterion continues in this direction of introducing important animation to a wider audience.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
In addition to the two short films, the disc also features a documentary about the making of the film, two television programs about Roland Topor and a trailer. When Criterion is at its best with supplements is when it illuminates the mindset of the creative forces at work. Laloux and especially Topor are fascinating figures.
The short films are quite a bit darker, but they show how animation, a bit of a warped mind, and political activism can be so effective through the animated medium. Both films are distinctively different, yet are alluring individually and as stepping-stones that would lead to the feature film.
The documentary Laloux savage is fascinating. He began his animation career by making films based on drawings from mental patients in a psychiatric hospital. The images were jarring and at times nonsensical, but they were an effective way to find a voice for his animation style. It was through this process where he met Topor and they eventually began their collaboration.
Here is one of Laloux’s early films, Monkee’s Teeth.
The highlight of the disc is a French biography piece on Topor called Italiques. The artist and writer was an enthralling figure, and this piece gets inside his head and provides some context and understanding (however difficult) into the absurdity of his art. We learn about his background, being raised by a father who was also an artist, albeit with more of a conventional tone. We get a glimpse of Topor’s worldview, which may be less political than Laloux, and more provocative. For instance, one of his books was called “Cannibal Cuisine” and the contents are what you’d expect from the title – a human cookbook.
Topor says that he likes to see something genuine and plausible in film, and he rejects insincerity. He does not like happy endings because he sees them as unrealistic. This is perhaps the most fitting description of his approach, reality through imagination. This can certainly be seen in Fantastic Planet.
My only complaint, and this is a minor one, is that there was not a supplement on Alain Goraguer’s brilliant score.
Criterion Rating: 9.5
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