When you hear about a strange planet inhabited by giant mystical blue aliens at odds with humans, you may be inclined to think of a certain recent Hollywood blockbuster.
And while this 1973 science fiction animation may share some of these characteristics with Avatar, that is where the similarities end. Fantastic Planet has a unique visual style and story depth which earned it the special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie opens with a primitive human woman running frantically with child in arms. We soon realize that she is being toyed with like an insect by giant, blue skinned beings called Draags. After a careless and fatal flick of the finger, the human child is alone. A Draag child named Tiva discovers the orphaned human boy and takes him home. She names him Terr. We soon learn that on this planet, humans (called Oms) are basically considered wild animals by the Draags and often kept as pets.
We are introduced to the Draags strange culture through the eyes of Terr, who is domesticated and treated much like a family dog – controlled by a collar and dressed in playful outfits by Tiva. The two are inseparable and Tiva begins to let Terr sleep nearby while she wears her learning device each day. As Terr experiences the lessons and learns of his people and the greater world around him, he realizes he is not meant to be in captivity and plans his escape.
Fantastic Planet (French: La Planète Sauvage, lit. The Savage Planet) was written and directed by René Laloux in collaboration with artist Roland Topor – a creative partnership that produced a few great short and feature length animated films. Both Laloux and Topor share an appreciation for the surreal, which permeates many of the films they collaborated on. Fantastic Planet is no exception with it’s colorful, dream-like landscapes and psychedelic soundtrack. It was adapted from a story by French writer Stefan Wul.
Fantastic Planet, once rather obscure, has seen a resurgence among animation fans and has become a bit of a cult classic. There are various versions out there in original French with subtitles and also in English. I first saw it many years ago and I remember it immediately had a big effect on me. As an artist myself, I was taken by the style – the characters and landscapes in subdued colors with a cross-hatched sketch quality very far removed from American cartoons that tended to use bold colors and cleaner lines. Disney this was not, and I was immediately drawn into the story.
Fantastic Planet is the film that introduced me to the ground-breaking animation of René Laloux.
His start in animation is an interesting one. He was first employeed at a psychiatric clinic where he would put on puppet shows for the patients. It was there that he made his first animated short film, Monkey’s Teeth (1960, French: Les dents du singe). It was a rather unorthodox form of art therapy for the clinic’s patients, who, under Laloux’s direction, wrote and drew the short film. It quickly made a stir winning the Prix Emile Cohl.
What suggests is superior to what shows. Movies today show more and more. It’s paranoid dictator cinema. What we need is schizophrenic cinema.
– René Laloux
Shortly after, Laloux began directing and made another award-winning short film called Les escargots (1965, English: The Snails), one of his first collaborations with Roland Topor, who at this point was already an acclaimed artist and writer. Interestingly enough, Topor wrote the novel The Tenant (1964) which filmmaker Roman Polanski later adapted as a film of the same name (1976). Topor also played Renfield in Werner Herzog’s film, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). But it is Topor’s talent as an artist that shines through in Fantastic Planet.
René Laloux later made a few other feature length animated films, Time Masters (1981), and Gandahar (1988) – which was released in the US as Light Years. The US version was a redubbed adaptation from a screenplay by Isaac Asimov and was not as popular as it’s French counterpart.
Fantastic Planet stands up today as a sublime work of moving art. Filled with stunning imagery and fueled by a compelling science fiction story that focuses more on the differences of two cultures – both neither quite good or evil – and relies less on gimmicky, high tech gadgetry that often distracts us in such films.