Today’s computer animation is so sophisticated, and offers animators so many creative options, that it naturally runs the risk of making animated films from earlier decades seem hopelessly stilted and outdated by comparison.
That could be one of the conclusions that younger animation fans, raised on rapid-paced video games, jump to after watching the rather leisurely paced movie “Fantastic Planet,” which was made in 1973 by a French director and screenwriter and using mainly Czech animators in an animation studio in Prague.
That’s a shame, because there’s a tremendous amount of imagination that went into this film, which was written by the movie’s director, Rene Laloux, in collaboration with French writer and artist Roland Topor (from the novel by Stefan Wul), who also designed the characters and cutout animation. If the actual art of computer animation has gotten considerably more expansive in recent years, the imagination that goes into the script isn’t always as creative.
And “Fantastic Planet,” a surreal look at a planet where human are treated at either domestic pets — or vermin to be wiped out — by blue giants, also has a political message that still resonates today.
“Fantastic Planet” was just re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Criterion Collection, which gives audiences the original French version with subtitles, rather than the dubbed version released in the U.S. in the early ’70s. It’s no surprise that this movie became a cult classic and a favorite on college campuses. It truly does take the viewer on a wild journey.
The film is set on the planet Ygam, where giant blue natives called Draags rule the land. Humans, on the other hand, are called Oms, and they fit into two categories: either wild creatures (think of the way we view rats or other small critters), or domestic pets. The movie opens with a gravely tense scene, as a mother runs in terror while clutching her baby. While trying to climb a hill, she comes upon several Draag children — who find it amusing to use their fingers to flick the poor woman down the hill several times, ultimately killing her. (Think of children deciding it would be fun to kill a baby kitten.)
The woman’s baby survives, and when an adult Draag and his young daughter pass by, she asks if she can adopt the baby as her pet, and names him Terr.
From there, the boy is raised by the Draag family, and would probably have simply become nothing more than a plaything for the family’s amusement, when something interesting happens. The young girl gets her education lessons listening to a headset, and she keeps Terr with her as she does. Terr is able to pick up on the lessons, and he becomes … a very well educated Om. Armed with knowledge, he decides to escape from the Draag household, dragging the headset with him, only to discover the outside world is inhabited by rough, often savage Oms whose only instinct is self-preservation — by any means. Can he convince them that the knowledge offered by the headset is their key to a better future?
In the meantime, the planet is also home to a series of bizarre creatures who keep popping up on this often barren and primitive landscape. Some mainly ignore the humans; others are decidedly dangerous.
Designed in a Czech studio at a time when that country was under the repressive control of the Soviet Union, Laloux and Topor create subtle but fascinating parallels about the nature of political oppression. For all of their high intelligence and ability to establish a well-ordered system of government and education, the Draags are unspeakably cruel toward the humans, who they regard as inferiors. There are no voices calling for ways to integrate Oms into their society or treat them as equals. The only conversations revolve around how to keep them from multiplying and causing trouble.
It’s interesting as well that the Draags speak in relatively flat, monotone, almost robotic voices, indicating that few if any emotions or empathy go into their thought process; while the Oms display a wide range of emotions, including anger, fear, sorrow, pity, jealousy, and humiliation.
When the Oms become smart enough to fight back, the Draags decide to engage in mass extermination, in scenes that are eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the Holocaust — including the use of poisonous gas to wipe out the Oms. Topor (who also wrote the novel “The Tenant,” which became the Roman Polanski movie in 1976) was a Polish Jew born in Paris in 1938, and his father ended up in an internment camp while the children had to be hidden from the Nazis. There’s no question that for all of its trippy, surrealistic designs set on a faraway planet, the movie also speaks to the political and cultural oppression of minority groups today.
It’s a great tribute to Criterion Collection that this movie has been revived and can now be rediscovered by a new and younger audience. There are likely to be some who find the look, design and style of the animation to be too old-fashioned by today’s standards.
But there’s no question there’s a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity in the story itself, which is both fascinating and deeply disturbing at the same time.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..