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Fantastic Planet Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Fantastic Planet Review

    At the top of this review for Eureka's outstanding Region “B” release of Rene Laloux's wonderful La Planete sauvage (Fantastic Planet), I feel I should state that the film contains a sequence of intense flashing lights that many cause concern for certain viewers.

    Based upon Stefan Wul's novel Oms en serie (Oms by the dozen) Rene Laloux's stunning and thought-provoking animated SF landmark was the winner of the prestigious Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and went on to become a cherished example of unbridled imagination, political metaphor and cultural observation. Art-house science fiction that was layered with subtext and allegory, but also worked extraordinarily well as the purest fantasy. Clearly an influence upon the great Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli, Laloux's psychedelic trip to another world was a staggering five years in the making. His animation style, courtesy of long-time collaborator Roland Topor's incredible artwork, was groundbreaking in its execution and striking in its conceptual evocation. His visual playground was an arena ripe for intellectual exploration and its legacy, albeit obscured by the much more popular SF outings that the frontier-pushing 70's churned out with such fearless abandon, has been far-reaching.

    On the distant planet of Ygam, a race of very human-like creatures called Oms live uncomfortably alongside the giant, blue-skinned Draags. Primitive in culture, the Oms have been subjugated by the vastly intellectual, meditative Draags, who regard them as playthings or pets, at best, and as detestable vermin, at worst. Certain “tame” Oms provide entertainment for the idle young Draags as combatants in little arenas, the living equivalent to a game of conkers or, indeed, Pokemon, or as little more than living dolls who can be dressed up in all manner of ridiculous costumes and simply toyed with on a whim. The ruling order of Draag society have a love/hate relationship with the Oms. Some would prefer to have the diminutive folks eradicated altogether, whilst others are far more liberal-minded. What is clear, however, is that the divide between the two races is wide and full of distrust. The Draags have learned to live the majority of their lives in a state of trance, their minds greatly expanded by such regular trans-dimensional sessions. The Oms, whose intelligence, for the most part, has been overlooked by the Draags live in fear and resentment of their overlords. Clearly, this situation is set to explode. All it needs a catalyst to light the fire.

    Laloux's film tells the epochal tale of one orphaned Om who is taken in by a young female Draag called Tiwa (Jennifer Drake), whose ostensibly liberal father is a member of the ruling elite, and how this slave-pet actually comes to understand the Draag culture and becomes as educated as the superior race, eventually escaping from his toy-like captivity to join the “wild” oms on the outside and lead a rebellion. Widely regarded as being an allegorical statement on the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, this story of the oppressed rising up to challenge the oppressors is a visual delight of Lewis Carrol-esque creature invention, high-brow SF surrealism, and a beguilingly abstract interpretation of a caste system that reflects upon myriad societal cultures from mortals and Olympians to Romans and their slaves, and from Edwardian decadence and downtrodden subjects to what I have no doubt that the Tories have in mind for this bogus Big Society farce. But the film is also very reminiscent of Planet Of The Apes and even goes as far as to provide some little impetus to both George Lucas' simplified concept of the tyrannical Empire and the Rebels in Star Wars, and even the Naa'vi and the human mercenaries who seek to exploit them in James Cameron's Avatar. Thus, the story is as timeless and as relevant as the nature of mankind, itself. Plus, it is resolutely a testament to the poetry of Cinema.

    Voiced by Eric Baugin, Terr, as the Om is called by his Draag mistress, is a strange sort of hero. At first, whilst he is still a child, as he is both mocked and adored by his young owner, we regard him as little more than a plaything, ourselves. Like the court jester, he is paraded about for the purpose of entertainment and we become as guilty as the the young Draag girl who, ironically, is completely innocent of any malice and merely acting only as is customary for her kind. On the other hand, we know exactly how wrong this situation is, yet derive just as much fun from the sight of Terr's helplessness and humiliation. Maybe this is because we find the Draag culture so fascinating - floating thought bubbles that transport the dreamer to a zone of pure meditation, a thirst for eternal knowledge, more power than they know what to do with - but it is also a queer reflection of our own sense of superiority and innate desire not to be the underclass. But as Terr grows older and we get to know him better as an individual - he periodically narrates the story for us - we find that our allegiance has appropriately switched. Of course, the once-primitive fool that Terr was has since become educated via “sitting in” on Tiwa's valuable lessons. Once again, this pokes a finger at our own rationale for tolerance and acceptability. Now that he's got a brain, we side with him, and want him to escape. It is almost as though we have just remembered that Terr looks like us. When he was nothing more than a fool, we could easily choose to ignore that. So, you can see that Fantastic Planet, simple enough yarn that it appears to be and as full of big, fun visuals as it is, is actually much more complex and considered than a story about giant blue people versus little Lilliputian-like folks possibly ought to be.

    And once Terr reaches the outside and makes contact with his own race, the elaborate schematics of this allegorical world get ever richer and more astute. It is not so much a topsy-turvy alternate world-view, as a genuine portal on to how we are irrefutably unable to get along. Feeding on from this, the spirit of revolution is, as ever, factionalised with differing tribes of Oms initially unable to see eye to eye, until a saviour-type - Terr - enters the fray with what amounts a whole new ideology. In the outside world there is the atmosphere of a savage culture that is actually more post-apocalyptic, a la Mad Max 2, than merely that of primitive man struggling to evolve. There is much innocent fun to be had from Terr's fledgling attempts to ingratiate himself with this wild clan. His definite knowledge of Draag ways conflicts with the more “magical” code of ethics by which the free-roaming Oms abide. Parallels are set up. Whilst the Draags enjoy pitting their pets against one another, the Oms settle disagreements with similar bouts of mortal combat. Whereas the Draags have a Senate-like forum from which to argue societal law and doctrine, the Oms simply fight opposing tribes with spear and club. And where the Draags enjoy “trips” to the other side, the Oms have their age-old sorcery. In other words, the two species have a damn sight more in common with each other than either is willing to concede.

    Which is the point, of course. We're all the same under the skin.

    The violence, when it comes, is quite overt. Not only do we have the casual, but fatal, swiping and flicking of Terr's mother at the start from a giant blue finger, but we have the large-scale genocide of the Oms later on, utilising a deranged assortment of Draag devices to lay waste to the little people en mass. Of particular interest, here, are the trained sniffer-Oms that the blue aggressors use, which reminded me of the feral scouts that Thulsa Doom has at the head of his warrior horde at the start of Conan The Barbarian, their curious masks are like something from out of a Neil Gaiman story. There is also the disturbing inference that these veritable puppets are like the traitors and collaborators who worked with the Nazis during their cleansing of the ghettos. And yet the scenes of massacres do not leave a nasty aftertaste. This is not because we don't care for the Oms in any way, it is just that the film's hypnotic power manages to make even scenes of mass destruction something to marvel at. And their a great little David and Goliath frisson about the moment when the Oms fight back ... or Jason and the Argonauts skirmishing with Talos, the giant of bronze.

    Away from the philosophical and sociological aspects of the story, the film is a wondrous experience on many other levels. There are elements of Monty Python to the almost random atrocities being committed - a big blue foot descending upon a ranting little person - as well as some of the more bizarre visual treats such as alien beings, warped vegetation and illogical and daft machinery. Hints of the Jabberwock and other Wonderland-inspired denizens abound. The landscape, itself, is a wonderfully shifting, ever-morphing paradise of illusion. Eerie plants and animals populate the varied surface of Ygam. Points go to the perennially chuckling mouthy monstrosity that sits in a cage and waits to slay innocent looking bird-things that flutter unwittingly down to investigate its mirth. The area around it is littered with such corpses. Then there is the vast vulture-cum-anteater who poses a serious threat to the little Oms in their caves. Beings that look like lobster-claws are strapped onto gladiatorial Oms to snap and bite at an opponent, being almost like a symbiont with their host. But look at the weird and wonderful imagination that goes into the settings. There's the cross-continental conveyor-belt that acts as endless road-system. Crystals that form like the morning dew, encasing all those nearby like beautiful weeds, are an exquisite abstraction. Throbbing worm-like tendrils of earth react with rainfall to form undulating bridges and archways. Rock formations conspire to flaunt the accepted laws of physics. You can easily ignore the politics and just savour the invention going on. Oms getting squished and squashed as matter-of-factly as ants trampled underfoot, a floating, messianic head (shades of John Boorman's Zardoz that came out the following year), little surveillance drones that splat some sort of sticky tracking disc upon surfaces suspected of housing Oms, home-seeking neck-rings that act as catch-all Om-returning devices, and huge headless statues that populate a transcendental domain - this is imagery that lingers brightly.

    Sex is not ignored either. The curious breast-revealing attire of both the Draags and Oms still ponder on the beauty of the female form. A ritualistic ceremony for the tree-dwelling community of Oms that Terr becomes a member of is a spectral wonder that sees lovers ignite like fireflies as they seek out more private enclaves. Nothing here is explicit, and the scene even comes to resemble something like a hidden chapter in Disney's Fantasia. On another sensory note, fans of jazz-funk fusions and the remnants of psychedelia will also get a lot from the offbeat and experimental score from Alain Goraguer. It is weird. It is wacky. It is trippy. But it also fits the visual scheme of Terr's odyssey, as well the cheerfully episodic nature of the tale, enchantingly well.

    Although kids can still happily dive into this strange new world of Oms and Draags, the tale is an adult one. Laloux dabbles in the conventions of adventure but, just like Miyazaki and the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke,Howl's Moving Castle and especially Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, there is an aloof and often haunting quality that may well travel way over the heads of younger viewers. Which is something that, as an adult, you will only find more appealing, I am sure.

    If I had a gripe about this classic “trip” it would be that the film ends too abruptly. Without going into specifics, I can't believe that I am alone in the opinion that the denouement feels somewhat rushed, especially after the marvellously leisurely pace of world-creation and culture exploration that we have enjoyed throughout the rest of the movie. Then again, this could be just down to the fact that I revel so much in the mystique of it all and in the esoteric mood that has been evoked all along that I simply don't want the story to end. Even so, there is a vague feeling that another chapter should have been integrated before the finale.

    Anyone who grew up with, or just recalls the type of animation that was prevalent on kids' television programmes during the early to late 70's will feel right at home with Roland Topor's style. I'm not saying that this is like Rhubarb and Custard or anything like that - because it isn't - but the simple, broad-stroke aesthetic is at once inviting and nostalgic, detailed and dynamic yet cocooned within a painterly canvas, rather like an exhibit in a gallery. Despite flinging out the roguish adult fare of Fritz The Cat (1972), American animated filmmaker Ralph Bakshi would, a few years later, conjure up his post-Armageddon fantasy, Wizards, in his own rather unique style, but the influence of Laloux's SF fable upon this strange, but far more linear film was clearly evident. Bakshi would, of course, go on to make his own version of The Lord Of The Rings in 1978, developing the oddly compelling device of rotoscoping human figures to weirdly otherworldly yet horribly “real” effect. Fantastic Planet was the forerunner, though, and its level of liberated imagination was as much a foundation stone for future animators to build upon as its actual visual evocation. Uniquely French in its stylistic trimmings and attitude, the story is, fittingly enough, a universal one, and its themes profoundly pertinent to our own civilisation and the societies that we create. The film was granted a wider release and more exposure when the great Roger Corman took it under his wing and helped to provide it with an American dubbed soundtrack so that apple-pie eating drive-in-lovers wouldn't go into culture shock with the barrage of French voices. And Eureka have very kindly presented this curious alternative as an option on this release.

    To say anything more would be doing the film a disservice. Fantastic Planet is a renowned film, but that does not mean that it has been widely seen. Many genre lovers will scarcely have even heard of it and to describe anything more would be robbing them of the many pleasures that await them in this Dali-esque world of allegory and invention. Needless to say, this is a richly rewarding location to visit in the ever-expanding universe of science fiction and fantasy.