It's the third of Rene Laloux's three SF animated movies, after Fantastic Planet
and Time Masters
. Much like them, it's an admirable feat of imagination and worldbuilding, even if it's not always too bothered about storytelling.
Gandahar is a peaceful country on an alien planet, whose inhabitants often go topless. Laloux loves boobs, albeit in the cause of characterising alien cultures and showing that they don't share our taboos. He takes his worldbuilding seriously, you see. His realistically thought-through planets are one of the most distinctive things about his work, taking in cultural peculiarities, racial groups, ecology, the food chain and unique flora and fauna.
Anyway, one day Gandahar finds itself under attack by indestructible Metal Men whose guns turn you to stone. Gandahar's Council of Women orders a chap called Sylvain to investigate, so off he goes and finds a race of mutants (the Deformed), the biggest disembodied brain you've ever seen (Metamorphis) and a prophecy about a temporal paradox.
The problem is Sylvain. The plot's quite interesting if you're thinking on a grand scale and looking at civilisations, species, racial extinction, the passing of millennia, etc. However it's bollocks when it comes to doing anything with its characters. Sylvain does almost nothing and shows no initiative. He's a null. He just goes where the plot pushes him. We might as well be following the adventures of a stick bobbing down the river. Fortunately the worldbuilding and the greater story are nearly interesting enough to overcome this, so I still enjoyed the film.
The themes are very Laloux. Ironically for a Westerner whose three movies were all produced in a different communist country, he's interested in totalitarianism and the dark side of an advanced civilisation. After all, he was ten years old when the Nazis took France. Here the Metal Men are a mindless collective of killers and invaders, who'll erase your individuality and turn you into an automaton like themselves. They're like the angels from Masters of Time.
More specifically Nazi-like is the movie's theme of eugenics, although it doesn't come over very well. Gandahar looks like a utopia, but we keep meeting the monstrous survivors of their generic experiments. The puzzling thing is that we never know why they did this. Was it a hobby? Was it surreptitious ethnic cleansing? We've no idea, so the idea doesn't come across as strongly as it deserved because it doesn't fit anything else we know and has nothing to resonate with. They're not villainous. They seem nice and the film never analyses this apparent discrepancy. Ordinary Gandaharians don't know that these deformities were created in the first place, let alone that they were then dumped in the outside world to live or die. This merges into a broader theme of evolution, mutation and transmogrification, with both Gandahar and its people being both destroyed and transformed over a time span of millennia.
The film's production history is fun. After doing Fantastic Planet
in Czechoslovakia and Time Masters
in Hungary, this time Laloux went to North Korea. South Korea is of course well-known for its animation studios, but I'm talking about the North. They approached him. They had lots of talented artists who'd work for peanuts. Laloux had been trying for years to adapt Jean-Pierre Andravon's novel "The Machine-men vs. Gandahar", so this turned out to be his opportunity. North Korea was good to him, but it had its peculiarities. Kim Il-sung didn't let his people know anything about the outside world, so the North Koreans wouldn't understand when asked to make something "look Chinese", for instance, so the French production staff would have to bring Chinese art and show them. Philippe Caza had planned to use much more unconventional animation techniques, which he had to drop.
Even the nudity was a problem. The North Koreans couldn't believe in the big-breasted women in Caza's production designs, so the French had to bring erotic magazines to prove that such women really existed. (To put this in perspective, six years later the country would suffer a famine that killed an estimated 800,000 to 3,500,000 people.)
Thus the film was made and released to great acclaim and success in France. That's half the story. The other half involves Harvey Weinstein, who re-edited the film, cut out nudity, replaced all the music, hired Isaac Asimov to do the English-language script and added his own name to the film as director. Laloux has always said that he didn't mind the changes, though.
The English-language version is the one I saw, unfortunately. Obviously I'd prefer to have seen the original, but Laloux's work is so distinctive enough that even Weinstein can't water it down too much. It still feels like him. Furthermore the English voice cast is kind of cool. There's Glenn Close as the unbelievably named Ambisextra, plus Bridget Fonda and Penn and Teller. Best of all though is Christopher Plummer, who's got more personality than all the rest of the cast put together as the urbane, plummy-voiced disembodied brain Metamorphis. I'm often irritated by the star-chasing of Dreamworks animated films, for instance, but Plummer is one big-name actor who's most definitely worth it. He's also an Oscar-winner, by the way.
Other things in this film:
1. A Gwanzulum from Planet of the Dead (DWM 141-142).
2. A member of the Green Lantern Corps.
3. A woman with four boobs.
This film is pretty good Laloux. It's gently magical, which is his gift. He conjures up worlds, full of wrinkled details like the cute three-eyed crabs, the Mirror Birds (um, depth vision?) or the tortured use of verb tense by the Deformed. Watching his films is like reading poetry. They're not particularly good at narrative, but they're beautiful and they want to make you think. It would also be untrue to say that they're without excitement, since this has fight scenes of unstoppable Metal Men vs. Godzilla-lizards, War Crabs and more.
"A civilisation of pleasure and freedom will soon be gone!" The speaker approves of this.