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Fantastic Planet.

Fantastic Planet.(1998)

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teaser Fantastic Planet. (1998)

Ren Laloux came relatively late to filmmaking. In fact, though he studied painting and worked in advertising for a time, his first animation efforts were part of a project with patients at a psychiatric institution. One of those short films won an award at an animation festival, where he met Roland Topor, an author, graphic artist, and political cartoonist who co-founded the Panic Movement with filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal. They hit it off. Topor leaned toward the satirical and the surreal and Laloux toward the allegorical and the fable-like, but they both embraced political and social commentary. The cross-pollination of these sensibilities flowered in two animated short films, Les Temps morts (1964) and Les Escargots (1965), and they decided to embark on an animated feature.

They chose Oms en serie, a 1957 science fiction novel by Stefan Wul (pen name of Pierre Pairault) about a race of highly advanced giants called the Draags that bring humans to their home planet and turn them into pets, as their source. Topor designed the look of the film and co-wrote the screenplay with director Laloux. Their film, which had the working title Sur la plante Ygam (On the Planet Ygam) but became La plante sauvage and was released under the name Fantastic Planet in the U.S. This was the height of the French nouvelle vague and new ideas were the currency of the filmmaking culture, but they faced a more immediate challenge. A serious, adult-minded animated science fiction feature with fantastical imagery and mature themes was a difficult enough undertaking but France had no animation industry to support their project. Laloux looked to Czechoslovakia, with a vibrant animation industry supported by the government, to realize his ambitious feature and he secured the respected Jiř Trnka Studio to animate his film.

Fantastic Planet took six years to produce. The production shut down briefly to secure additional funds and was halted when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and put all artistic projects under scrutiny to "allegorical content." Fantastic Planet is nothing if not allegorical--the oppressed Oms (a pun in French; "oms" is a homonym for "hommes," the French word for men) live in a world ruled by blue-skinned Draags, an advanced but oppressive race that treats the diminutive Oms as pets at best and vermin at worst--but eventually (and amazingly) was allowed to resume, in part because it was a French production bringing in money from outside the country.

Rather than traditional cel animation, where images are drawn on transparent celluloid sheets and photographed one after another against a painted background, the filmmakers turned to stop-motion process with cut-out figures drawn on paper and manipulated against flat backgrounds, with soft colors on paper rather than ink and paint on cels, and pen-and-ink cross-hatching to give the figures a suggestion of depth and contour, like a book illustration in motion. It gives the film an alien beauty that decades later is still unique in animated cinema. It's oddly static but the weird, lush landscapes, pastel color palette, and bizarre imagery create a fantastical world of both wonder and terror, which Laloux presents from an eerie remove.

As much fantasy as science fiction, this strange, metaphorical portrait plays out in a world as psychedelic as Yellow Submarine (1968) but far more predatory. Laloux creates a culture where intellect is disconnected from morality and sensual decadence rules. And if the mix of "David and Goliath" and civil rights appears simplistic, it's not a stretch to see the fight against oppression reflected in the civil rights struggle in America, the French in Algeria, Apartheid in South Africa, and (when injustice takes a turn to wholesale annihilation of the "inferior" race) the Holocaust itself. The theme of resistance and rebellion against an oppressive power surely inspired the animators in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, who at one point were on the verge of rebelling against Laloux and taking charge of the production themselves.

Fantastic Planet premiered at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, a rare animated feature invited to the main competition, and it won a special jury prize. It was a commercial success and an internationally recognized cult movie (Roger Corman dubbed the film for the American released with young Barry Bostwick in the voice cast). Laloux opened his own French animation studio, which largely supported itself making commercials, and he made two additional animated features--Les maitres du temps / Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar / Light Years (1988)--but never had another critical or commercial success as great as Fantastic Planet.

Sources:
Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents: The 100 Greatest Science Fiction Films, Douglas Brode. University of Texas Press, 2015.
"Gambous Amalga," Michael Brooke. The Criterion Collection #820, 2016.
Laloux Sauvage, documentary directed by Florence Dauman. Argos Films, 2009.
"Roland Topor" episode of Italiques, directed by Roger Boussinot. French television, originally broadcast August 8, 1974.

By Sean Axmaker

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