Nothing else has ever looked or felt like director René Laloux’s animated marvel Fantastic Planet, a politically minded and visually inventive work of science fiction. The film is set on a distant planet called Ygam, where enslaved humans (Oms) are the playthings of giant blue natives (Draags). After Terr, kept as a pet since infancy, escapes from his gigantic child captor, he is swept up by a band of radical fellow Oms who are resisting the Draags’ oppression and violence. With its eerie, coolly surreal cutout animation by Roland Topor; brilliant psychedelic jazz score by Alain Goraguer; and wondrous creatures and landscapes, this Cannes-awarded 1973 counterculture classic is a perennially compelling statement against conformity and violence.
After working together on a couple of animated shorts, which are included in the supplementals, director René Laloux and artist Roland Topor reteamed and co-wrote their first and only animated feature, 'Fantastic Planet', winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix. Based on the 1957 French novel 'Oms en série' by Stefan Wul, this science fiction cult classic uses fascinating, otherworldly imagery to explore themes rooted on this planet.
The film opens without explanation as a young woman, dressed in brown skins reminiscent of someone in a primitive society, clutches a baby to her body as she runs through a landscape with unusual foliage. Out of nowhere, large blue fingers toy with her cruelly to the point of killing her. The fingers belong to children of an alien species known as Draags, gigantic creatures with blue skin and red eyes. They are more highly advanced than the humanoid creatures, known as Oms.
Tiwa, daughter of Master Sinh, an important Traag leader, adopts the orphaned Om, whom she names Terr. He becomes the narrator of the story. To demonstrate how technically advanced the Draags are, Tiwa has a bracelet that can compel a collar placed around Terr's neck to return to wherever she is. Draggs treat Oms like pets, unaware of the capabilities of the species.
A Draag week is an Om year, so Terr grows up fast. He escapes from Tiwa and encounters a wild tribe of Oms. They take him in, and though some are leery, he is able to educate them to not only protect themselves but to fight back. Once they are able to challenge the Draags, the creatures have to decide if there is another choice other than mutual destruction.
Working within the science fiction genre, the filmmakers are able to indirectly deal with subjects such as racism and speciesism through the use of fantastical creatures. Although it clearly takes positions, the story doesn't come across too heavy-handed. Also, the phrase "mutual destruction" was a well-known Cold War phrase, which one would expect to be a concern in '70s Europe.
Made at the Jiri Trnka Studio in Czechoslovakia, the film uses cutout stop-motion animation to bring Topor's designs to life. The movement of objects isn’t as smooth as cel animation, but that works in the film's favor as it helps give the world on screen a different feel.
Although the literal translation is "The Wild Planet", 'Fantastic Planet' seems a more accurate name for what Laloux and Topor have created. It's not surprising to learn that Topor worked in surrealism after having witnessed the planet's flora and fauna. His art designs still feels fresh and original over 40 years later. It's definitely a film and a world worthy of revisiting.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fantastic Planet' (#786 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase.. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. The accompanying leaflet includes "Gambous Amalga," an essay by writer/multimedia producer Michael Brooke, on one side and an image of Tiwa and Terr on the other.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. The liner notes reveal "this new 2K digital restoration was undertaken from the 35mm original camera negative at Eclair/Groupe Ymagis by Argos Films, with the support of the CNC, under the supervision of Florence Dauman and Fabrice Blin."
The color palette uses soft pastel hues. The reds seen in the Draags' eyes and transports make the strongest impression. There's a slight skew towards blue throughout, but being my first time to see the film, it was not bothersome. Blacks are inky. The line work in drawings use soft lines so objects don't have strong edges and depth is best created through perspective.
The image looks very clean except at about 28 minutes, as Tiwa searches her home for the runaway Terr, a hair appears at bottom of frame. Natural film grain is present. Didn't notice any digital artifacts.
The audio is available in both French and English LPCM Mono. I prefer the former since I don't know French, which contributes to the Draags coming across as alien. According to the liner notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from 35mm magnetic tracks and restored at Eclair/Groupe Ymagis."
The dialogue and effects are clear. Alain Goraguer's marvelous, evocative score is a unique blend of prog rock, jazz, and funk. The instruments, from the guitars to the synthesizer and flute, sound distinct. The music is where the track demonstrates the dynamic range at its widest and the bass at its most prevalent. There's no sign of age or wear.
It's absolutely fantastic that Criterion has added another animated title to the collection, especially one so deserving. The HD presentation is satisfying, and the supplementals are informative, though it's too bad there's no commentary track or CD soundtrack. 'Fantastic Planet' is definitely a film viewers should turn on and tune in as it offers a lot to appreciate and think about.