Rene LalouxStefan WulJean ValmontYves Brainville
Time Masters
Also known as: Les Maitres du Temps
Medium: film
Year: 1982
Director: Rene Laloux
Writer: Stefan Wul, Rene Laloux, Jean Giraud [Moebius], Jean-Patrick Manchette
Keywords: animation, SF
Language: French
Country: France, Switzerland, West Germany, UK, Hungary
Actor: Jean Valmont, Michel Elias, Frederic Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry, Sady Rebbot, Patrick Baujin, Pierre Tourneur, Alain Cuny, Yves Brainville, Michel Barbey, Jim Bauman, Michel Paulin, Francois Chaumette, Henry Djanik, Nick Storey, Gabriel Cattand, Georges Atlas
Format: 79 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 July 2012
It's the second of Rene Laloux's three animated SF movies, after Fantastic Planet. Again it's based on a French SF novel by Stefan Wul, but this one feels less intellectual and high-minded. In fact it feels like a compilation movie of a TV show. The problem is the plot. There's not much that's obviously wrong with it (apart from the plot holes), but it feels like a bunch of incidents stitched together. Its ingredients include:
(a) a spaceship captain (Jaffar) who doesn't have a personality but is a nice guy anyway.
(b) his passengers, one (Princess Belle) being a female equivalent of him and the other (Prince Matton) being a selfish knob-end who's on the run from their people with a stolen fortune.
(c) an old dude (Silbad)
(d) a mildly obnoxious child (Piel) who's stranded on a planet of killer insects and is talking to everyone via a space radio that he thinks is called Mike.
(e) further planets, e.g. the world of mind-wiping angels
(f) newborn telepathic flying shape-shifting alien gnomes
(g) pirates
(h) ship-jacking
(i) a fascist army, or at least that's what those bully-boys' uniforms suggested to me
(j) the Time Masters, whose existence isn't so much as hinted at until the last fifteen minutes and whose big schtick doesn't make sense
This makes for an episodic storyline. At first we're following Piel. Jaffar flies off to try to rescue him, but then for no particularly convincing reason the plot has him drop in on Silbad and shoot the breeze for a while. We see interesting aliens, including the gnomes. They're called Yula and Jad, although I can't remember how that got decided. We go to the angels' planet, Gamma 10, and then... oh, you get the picture. It's as if a bunch of standalone TV episodes has been edited into a movie, which in fact isn't a million miles away from the truth.
Fantastic Planet had done well enough to let Rene Laloux start his own animation studio in France. In the late seventies he was asked to make a TV series based on Stefan Wul stories, which in the end never happened... but its pilot got reworked to become this movie. It's based on The Orphan of Perdide. Unfortunately the budget had only been good for TV standards, so Laloux could only make a movie happen by using a cheap animation studio in Hungary. The results weren't entirely satisfactory. This feels more TV-level than Fantastic Planet, both in the script and the animation. The Hungarian animators lacked experience and Laloux didn't have enough money to redo scenes he wasn't happy with. You'll also get different teams working on different characters, which means that some always look great (the gnomes) and others really don't (Jaffar).
However that said, there's good stuff here too.
I like the ideas. The movie's a bit of a shapeless grab-bag, but the upside of that is that it's got more ideas and themes than it knows what to do with. The finale has some emotional weight and gives closure to a storyline that until then had been looking ramshackle. It's not unexpected in hindsight, but it's still quite clever. In hindsight it casts new light on a certain earlier scene... but then, if you think about it further, causes wibbly-wobbly plot problems. It's still good, though.
The angels were for me the best section of the film. It could be read as commentary on religion, with the angels being a cult who preach a message of love and happiness, only to interpret this as brainwashing recruits and destroying their individuality. They're also visually interesting, being faceless winged beings who look like angels in white light and devils in red.
The Time Masters are also memorable, though. They're impressive because what they're doing is so impossible and extraordinary, but again I had trouble with the plot logic. What's the point? What do they achieve? If they want to go into the past, why not just transport themselves? Nevertheless I still liked them and they're opening up cool plot options.
Importantly the design work is by Moebius, aka. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. This is one of the best things about this movie. Is there a comics artist from continental Europe more revered than Moebius? I suppose there's Herge, but that's more the character he created. Moebius is praised by folks from Stan Lee to Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki, while the films to which he's contributed include Alien, Willow, Tron and The Fifth Element. That said, obviously his lines are being simplified here for animation. You won't go away raving about his figure work, but he creates some nifty aliens (especially the wah-wah) and amazing spaceships. The only problem with the latter is how appallingly they've been animated. Geometrical shapes like spaceships and vehicles were among the hardest things to do in the pre-computer era, especially for an inexperienced studio. Essentially we're watching beautiful cardboard cut-outs.
The characterisation is a mixed bag, with too much that's either underwritten or handwaved. Jaffar and Belle are bland. Piel goes around saying he doesn't like things and his reaction to an army of man-eating flies is to tell them they're ugly and they should go away. This makes him an unusually realistic child by movie standards, though. Prince Matton is the most interesting character in the movie, actually. He's an evil, selfish cock and hence capable of bringing the plot alive out of nowhere, but unfortunately he ends up turning heroic from scriptwriter fiat and the audience rolls its eyes. What's annoying is that that could have strong. Alas the movie never bothers to foreshadow this or make Matton's decision feel meaningful, so that's a failure. Silbad is fun though, while the telepathic gnomes are a lovely little double act and they make the movie human and charming.
Overall, it's quite nice. Much of it feels inconsequential, but it's also a pleasant, well-meaning SF adventure with no nudity and almost no violence. It's a family film. So that's another change from Fantastic Planet, then. It's more rich thematically than you'd think if you weren't paying attention, while Laloux is working hard to create vivid, plausible SF ecosystems with eye-catching flora and fauna.
A bit slipshod, to be honest. However when it's good, it's really rather nice. The character work is unimpressive, but sometimes charming. The animation can be terrible, but there's also some lovely design work to look at. The script is neglecting basics like story structure and plot holes, but there's a lot of good stuff in there too. This movie probably wouldn't grab your attention if you stumbled across it on TV, but I think you'll find a lot to enjoy if you're in a generous mood.