Rene LalouxStefan WulJean ValmontYves Barsacq
Fantastic Planet
Medium: film
Year: 1973
Director: Rene Laloux
Writer: Rene Laloux, Stefan Wul, Roland Topor
Keywords: SF, boobs, animation
Country: France, Czechoslovakia
Language: French
Actor: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart, Jean Valmont, Sylvie Lenoir, Michele Chahan, Yves Barsacq, Hubert de Lapparent, Gerard Hernandez, Claude Joseph, Philippe Ogouz, Jacques Ruisseau
Format: 72 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 29 June 2012
It's a French-Czech animated SF film that feels more like an allegory than a regular story. It's a cult film and there's a lot here to like, but I don't think I could recommend it.
First, some background. It's an allegory for the Soviet Occupation of Czechoslovakia, which I wish I'd known before watching it. The film took five years to make, which means (counts on fingers) they started working on it in 1968. That's an interesting year. That's when Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and started a (short-lived) liberalisation known as the Prague Spring, which was viewed as so politically threatening by its neighbouring Warsaw Pact countries that the USSR invaded. Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and so it would take more than twenty years until the Eastern Bloc fell apart and the Czechs finally managed to restore democracy.
This film started production in Prague and only had one non-Czech working on it (the director). However it ended up moving to Paris to avoid interference by the communist authorities.
Admittedly the film's based on a 1957 SF novel by a Frenchman, Pierre Pairault writing as Stefan Wul. However it still resonates with 1968. It's not hard to see why the production team chose it. The movie begins with a woman running through an alien forest with a baby. She seems unhappy, which becomes understandable when giant hands come down from the sky as if we're watching a Monty Python animation. They flick her around like an ant. They torture her, albeit in the thoughtless, low-level way that happens every day when small children find an insect. A minute or two later, she's dead. If God were a bastard and specifically hated you, this might be what that would look like.
This is the planet Ygam, populated by the Draags and the Oms. The Draags are the planet's native inhabitants and they're peaceful, blue and devote their lives to meditation. They're civilised. They're nice. However unfortunately they're also so enormous that the Oms, in comparison, are the size of insects and get treated as such by the Draags. Their children will pick them up and turn them into pets, dressing them up in stupid outfits and forcing them to fight each other. Their adults will debate the possibility that an Om might have intelligence. Their conclusion: maybe, perhaps, but they still do a mass extermination every two or three years, to be on the safe side.
The Oms came from the planet Terra. They're human. They're us.
I'm sure you can see where this is going. It's quite fun to watch the metaphor being played out, because everything the Draags say and do is so superficially reasonable. Visually, it makes sense. Big things can do anything they like to small things. That's the way of the universe. It's creepy to see how convincingly this film can sell the psychology of torture, enslavement and genocide for no better reason than "we're bigger than you"... because no psychology is required at all. It's easy for them. The difficult bit would be to make the intuitive leap to start defending the rights of insects.
The names are also significant, both in their deliberate meanings from Pairault and in other ways you might choose to look for. "Om" is a homonym for "homme", i.e. French for "man", but the English dub pronounces it like "Ohm", i.e. the SI unit of resistance. Similarly the protagonist's name is Terr, which is another French homonym ("Terre", i.e. Earth), but apparently in the novel it's also short for "terrible" (although this doesn't mean the same in French as it does in English). Oh, and the following I didn't spot, but Draags apparently sounds like "drogues", i.e. "drugs". The thematic significance of this might seem more tenuous, but watching the film would suggest that someone (perhaps the Draags) has been taking a whole bunch of them. Draag meditation can involve trippy tendril metamorphosis, for instance.
The animation is stiff and reminded me of Monty Python. People walk in a similar cardboard cut-out way, although the art style is different. It looks like coloured pencils, drawn in fully shaded detail that would be back-breaking to animate. However in addition Ygam is a world of casual cruelty and amazing monsters that could have come from either Terry Gilliam or Lewis Carroll. Bollock monsters will cuddle around your feet and spray clothes on you. There's a sadistic bird-bludgeoning nose monster in a cage-shaped tree and an anteater bird that likes Oms. It's a mentality not a million miles away from another Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer, in its love of whimsical horror for no reason.
You'll also see lots of boobs. Every Om woman has her left boob out, while every Draag woman goes topless. You can't even blame the French, because this is basically a Czech film. This has no sexual significance, despite a fertility ritual scene in which all the Oms strip naked, start glowing yellow and run off together into the woods. It's just the way things are on Ygam.
All this is superb. I loved the worldbuilding and I went apeshit for the Draags and the Oms, both of whom have entirely reasonable and sympathetic viewpoints that get followed through to mind-boggling conclusions. "The knowledge of the Draags is evil!" However the story barely exists. Terr isn't a protagonist. He's a moving camera stand. We're watching stuff happen, with Terr happening to be in the middle of it. There are a couple of key points where Terr actually does something that makes a difference, but those aside, most of this film isn't narrative-driven. Instead it's motivated by a simple love of SF. Look at the scene where they're whistling to shatter the crystals, for instance. I think it's a little bit wonderful in the fact that it only exists to expand our minds and increase our sense of wonder... but an entire movie comprised only of scenes that would soon get dull.
Rene Laloux made other animated SF films, incidentally, including an adaptation of another novel by the same author. However he wasn't prolific. He only made three full-length features, with the other two being Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1988). I'm tempted.
In short: trippy. Neither the story nor the visuals are quite like anything you'd get today. The incidental music fits the same vibe. It also won the special jury prize at Cannes, which seems mildly loopy to me but I'm always up for better recognition of eccentric SF. It drags, frankly. I wanted to edit it down. However it's also full of charm and yet offering a ton of thematic and allegorical meat, without in any way making this indigestible. It's a souffle of a film, light and elegant. If you're in the mood for it, you could do worse.