*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation.
Hello again everyone! This week, we continue the First Thoughts series with a very strange little film from 1973, known in English as Fantastic Planet. What a trippy ride it was, too! I hadn’t heard much about this one beforehand, having first stumbled across it one day a year or two ago after randomly deciding to see if I could find any stories about humans being kept as pets (for some reason). It has been sitting on my watchlist ever since, but now I’ve finally had the perfect chance to see it.
Fantastic Planet is perhaps the best-known work by French arthouse animator René Laloux, who co-wrote the film with fellow Frenchman Roland Topor. The pair led their animators – a largely female team, unusual at the time – at the Jiří Trnka Studio in Prague, with Topor further serving in the role of production designer. For the story, Laloux and Topor looked to the 1957 novel Oms en série by French writer Stefan Wul, beginning production of their film just a few years after its publication, in 1963. When the Prague Spring interrupted things in 1968, production was stalled temporarily, although the Soviets’ crushing of the uprising only added fuel to the director’s anti-fascist message. Eventually, the project was completed and debuted at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, before slowly making its way around the rest of the world over the following decades.
The original French cast featured the likes of Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart, Gérard Hernandez and Yves Barsacq, while a later English dub created to make the film more palatable for American audiences included Cynthia Adler, Mark Gruner, Hal Smith, Barry Bostwick, Olan Soule, Marvin Miller and Janet Waldo. I might check out the American version later on as it’s included on my DVD, but I felt like I owed it to the director to do him the courtesy of watching his work in the way intended at least once, so I opted for the subtitles (besides, the DVD itself warns you that the English dub isn’t great and is included “for posterity”, urging you to go with the French instead).
Accompanied by a prog-rock, psychedelic score courtesy of Alain Goraguer and solemnly narrated by Jean Valmont (the voice of adult Terr), the first thing that strikes you about Fantastic Planet is the sheer eccentricity of its atmosphere. You have to give Topor credit for his design work on this thing; the whole planet of Ygam is bursting with creativity, which only adds to the creep factor as the spooky, dead-eyed alien Draags casually torture their humanoid pets, the Oms. The wacky visuals reminded me distantly of Yellow Submarine, released just a few years earlier, while my mother commented that it looked like something out of a Monty Python sketch, but this feels much more Pink Floyd than the Beatles.
The story follows one particular Om whose mother is killed by a group of careless Draag children in the opening scene, with the dual perspectives of her terror and their indifference neatly establishing the relationship between these two peoples for the audience. The tiny Oms are seen as animals by the Draags, who play with them for idle amusement like our own children might play with a frog they caught – they’re positioned entirely beneath the Draags in terms of size, intelligence and value. It’s a great concept (and the main reason I sought this out in the first place), but whether the film uses it to its fullest potential is debatable to say the least.
Our protagonist, the young orphaned Om named Terr (Terre is “Earth” in French, while Hommes – Oms – is “Men”), is taken in by a young Draag girl called Tiwa, whose father Master Sinh holds key a position in the alien hierarchy. While it’s implied that she “spoils” him by treating him better than most Draags treat their Oms, she can still be rough or neglectful of him and the life is a demeaning one for Terr. He is kept on a collar with which Tiwa can control his movements, but this very shackle proves to be the key to his liberation.
Terr accompanies Tiwa during her educational sessions (to the chagrin of her father), where Draag knowledge is transmitted straight into her mind via a kind of telepathic headset. Due to a fault in his collar’s wiring, Terr is able to absorb the knowledge along with her, and this unintentional education becomes his strongest weapon. With a better understanding of the hazards and terrain beyond his prison, Terr seizes his moment one day and strikes out into the wilderness with Tiwa’s headset, escaping Draag subjugation at last.
While this first part of the film is fairly engaging, the rest of Terr’s journey across Ygam was less skilfully handled and started to lose my interest. We follow him as he engages with wild Oms and, despite the distrust and reluctance of some of them, eventually persuades them to join him in partaking of the Draags’ knowledge through the headset. After becoming literate, they thus find out about a routine purging of their kind by the Draags and, while still suffering heavy casualties, are prepared enough to allow some of their number to escape, even managing to kill a Draag onlooker with their newly-acquired tactics.
The panicked and infuriated Draags decide to increase the scale of their attack, as if trying to wipe out a plague of rats or other pests. However, by the time they put this plan into action, the Oms (who have much shorter lifespans and thus live on a greatly reduced timescale) have managed to create scale replicas of Draag technology and have used it to build miniature rockets, which they use to travel to Ygam’s moon, the titular Fantastic (or Savage) Planet.
Things then get ever weirder, as the Oms discover the planet to be a kind of extraplanetary mating ground for the Draags, who teleport themselves there through meditation in order to meet and romance with other beings of the galaxy… or something like that. Naturally, the Oms take the opportunity to hit the Draags where it hurts and destroy some of the Daliesque, headless statues that the aliens have been using in their courtships, leading to further panic back on Ygam. In the end, the Draags decide they have little choice but to try and make peace with the Oms, who they have drastically underestimated. An artificial satellite is created in Ygam’s orbit for the Oms to make their new home, which apparently allows the two races to coexist from then on, wrapping things up with a convenient little bow.
Fantastic Planet is a very obviously allegorical tale which put me in mind of animal rights arguments, personally, although at the time it came out the chief target was probably meant to be the Soviet Union, which had invaded Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring and soon began an era of “normalization” and censorship in the country. Laloux and Topor seem to have been especially keen to emphasize the importance of education in the Oms’ fight against the Draags, showing how an educated populace can use tactical methods to form a more successful rebellion. Sean Axmaker of Turner Classic Movies described the film as “nothing if not allegorical”, writing that “it’s not a stretch to see the fight against oppression reflected in the civil rights struggle in the United States, the French in Algeria, apartheid in South Africa, and (when injustice takes a turn to wholesale annihilation of the ‘inferior’ race) the Holocaust itself”.
Aside from the story, the art style and the many weird, wonderful creatures of Ygam were especially fascinating, but I must admit that I struggled to connect to the central characters. For a film barely an hour and a quarter long, it wasn’t very well paced and had me yawning long before the end, even in scenes that were clearly supposed to be quite exciting. Perhaps it had something to do with the jerky, limited style of the animation, or the rather disconnected and dehumanized way we are made to view Terr and the other Oms, but I just had trouble distinguishing these people or their personalities. I sympathized more with him as a child, where his humiliation and frustration at being Tiwa’s plaything shone through, but as he aged and suddenly began building rockets and murdering Draags, he started to feel almost invincible – the credibility of the Draags’ threat felt lessened, even after seeing them wiping out an entire Om tribe with gas canisters (an effective and uncomfortable scene).
To be honest, the film’s most lasting impression on me after my first viewing was just how many completely bonkers scenes it contained, with some being surprisingly violent in a very casual way. One notable standout is the part where Terr is forced to battle another Om with a snapping blue lizard-like thing strapped to both of their chests, with Terr’s resulting victory winning him the right to introduce his stolen knowledge to the tribe. It’s pretty brutal for a nearly fifty-year-old animated film (especially when both lizards are slaughtered and tossed aside after they’ve served their purpose), even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
If you read through a few of the more negative Letterboxd reviews, one recurring criticism of Fantastic Planet is that it’s boring and would have perhaps worked better as a short film. Personally, I agree with that, as the sluggish pace and stilted voice acting makes this brief feature feel twice its length, and the second act in particular contains a fair amount of padding. To be honest, I got the distinct impression that this was meant to be watched while high, which obviously makes enjoying it nowadays more of a challenge. For all its stylistic appeal, the film just doesn’t do anything interesting with its concept, telling a very common story in a very straightforward way; it was for doing just the opposite that I praised How to Train Your Dragon in my last review.
Still, Fantastic Planet made a good name for itself in its day, winning the Grand Prix special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival where it debuted. Even as recently as 2016, Rolling Stone ranked it as their thirty-sixth greatest animated film of all time, so it definitely has a devoted fanbase out there, although it does also have some pretty famous detractors, notably including Gene Siskel. There’s a lot to appreciate from an artistic standpoint and I’d recommend it for the designers among you if you’re seeking inspiration, but the allegory of the story has been better presented elsewhere both before and since; the original Planet of the Apes (1968) is a good example from the same period. For animation fans, it’s worth at least one watch as you might get more out of it than I did, but I’m afraid as a general film experience this was not as much fun for me as the previous two. Given its brevity, I’ll probably come back to it at some point for a second try, but for now Fantastic Planet has left me cold.
Thank you so much for reading, and if you know and love Fantastic Planet, I hope you’ll forgive me for being so hard on it. Next up in this series will be Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), which you may know as a Fantasia parody, after which we’ll be getting to the notoriously torturous production of The King and the Mockingbird. Before those, though, we’re donning our frosty hoodies for a review of Rise of the Guardians, which may be seasonally inappropriate but will constitute the final review of the Rise of the Brave Tangled Dragons collection. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
https://www.theledger.com/article/LK/20081030/news/608128728/LL – a review discussing some of the political background during the film’s production
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastic_Planet – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070544/ – IMDB profile, and credit for poster and images