Fantastic Planet (1973) by René Laloux
Retro Review by John McAmis
I love animation. In my life, the medium is only second to family in my personal hierarchy of all things important. I love every branch of this mystifying medium: stop-motion, traditional, computer generated, and everything in-between. I love the subsets of each branch of animation: claymation, silhouette, cutout, pencil and paper, gouache and ink, digital, 2D, 3D, mixed media, and all others that don’t belong to a traditional category. I love that animation can be made for the masses via Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination, and Blue Sky studios. I love that more independent makers exist in the forms of Studio Ghibli, Laika, Cartoon Saloon, and Aardman. I love the auteurs of animation like Sylvain Chomet, Don Hertzfeldt, Marcell Jankovics, Bill Plympton, and Jan Svankmeyer. Finally, I love animated films that create such an impact at the time of their release, they actually cause the entire medium to rethink itself. Windsor McCay’s comical cartoons of the 1910’s, Lotte Reiniger’s spellbinding silhouette animations, Ladislas Starewitch’s elaborate The Tale of the Fox (1937), and Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) all turned the world of animation on its head, creating a new branch of the medium in the process. René Laloux’s 1973 masterpiece La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) is a cornerstone of independent animation, but it also stands tall and holds its ground alongside cinema’s most famous science-fiction films.
Fantastic Planet is directed by René Laloux and utilizes the incredible artistic talent of Roland Topor whose signature style of bright colors, cross-hatched figures, and wild organic shapes and creatures is perfectly suited for adaption to an animated feature. The film takes place on the planet of Ygam, which is inhabited by humans, referred to as Oms, and giant blue humanoid figures with red eyes, referred to as Draags. The Oms are ant-sized creatures when compared to the Draags, making them a convenient size to be tamed and domesticated, which is what happens to the film’s protagonist, an Om, whose mother was easily killed by a young Draag during playtime. The main Om is given the name of Terr (short for Terror) by his new master, a young female Draag named Tiva. Terr is then subjected to domestic life much in the same way humans subject dogs, cats, gerbils, and other animals as pets. Terr is even dressed-up in funny clothes like a Dachshund would be at Halloween. The film’s crux, without giving too much away, is a story of enslavement and rebellion - a profound allegory for humans on our distant planet of Earth.
The animation style in this movie is breathtaking and mind-bending to behold. Until reading film essays after viewing Fantastic Planet, no evidence lead to it being a stop-motion film. Every object and figure is rendered in Topor’s signature cartoony style, but in my mind I was viewing this as very detailed cel animation. Instead, it was a very detailed, and sophisticated, stop-motion production. The movements are extremely fluid, and I didn’t detect too many skipped frames — a feat for any animated feature. Due to this being an animated film in nature, the camera has very limited movements: pan, zoom, tilt. However, the crew plays with size and scale as if the camera were mobile. The Draags are huge, menacing creatures, viewed from almost every angle throughout the film’s 72 minutes. The blue humanoids are hundreds of feet tall, towering over the Oms, stepping on the lesser creatures when necessary and with great ease. Thousands of hours of cutting, coloring, etching and inking went into this film and the artistry is apparent from the film’s opening shot of Terr’s mom running through the wild foliage.
Fantastic Planet makes itself known not only within the animation medium, but also within the genre of science fiction. The film was based on a 1957 novel Oms en série by the French writer Stefan Wul. Adapted to the screen by Laloux and Topor, the story takes on a new life. The planet of Ygam and its satellites are entirely fictitious, of course, but somehow there is a reality imbibed within the Draag culture. The giants have a parliamentary council to hold meetings on pressing issues, there is an education system, cultural cornerstones such as meditation take place daily, and a branch of science exists that humans have yet to discover on Earth. Ygam is vast and full of unknowns, yet it’s familiar. There is enough human and Earth in the story to ground itself in relatable themes and images, and this is the true defining factor of a great science-fiction work. All stories within this genre are fiction, but they are somehow based in reality, in the world of science and fact and truth. Fantastic Planet, set in an odd world where plants gurgle and statues dance, holds a great deal of truth about humans, and we see a version of our own society through giant red eyes.
For those adventurous cinephiles or lovers of animation who wish to broaden their scope on the medium, I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s weird, it’s profound, it’s beautifully directed and animated. The funky yet somehow appropriate jazz score adds a layer of anxiety to the picture. Jazz is one of the most creative and inherently human styles of music and to hear it as a backdrop on an alien world is quite jarring. Fantastic Planet will not easily leave you after the lights come on; the similarities of this bizarre world with our own are too obvious, too great, and too important to dismiss as just another science-fiction tale. Themes of oppression and class difference dominate the film’s main narrative--who is the greater species, the authoritative giants with great minds or the rebellious tiny humans who innovate and invent in order to survive? Fantastic Planet rivals its sci-fi siblings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, but it also belongs alongside masterful animated films that have created the many beautiful branches of animation.