Michael’s Review of Fantastic Planet

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This past year, Criterion released a remastered version of the film Fantastic Planet. It is a French animated sci-fi film that was released in 1973. Rene Laloux adapted it from the 1957 French novel Oms en série, and it is now his most famous work. Nevertheless, as a foreign psychedelic cartoon from the 70’s, many American sci-fi fans have never heard of it.

The story is initially told from the perspective of giant blue beings with terrifying red eyes named Draags. They have enslaved human beings, whom they call Oms. Draags are so large that an Om can fit in one of their blue hands. One Om, raised as a pet, manages to escape his owners. He joins a tribe of wild Oms and secretly forms a rebellion against the tyrannical alien overlords.

One of the most striking features of the film is its diligent approach to weird imagery. The opening shot of the film is one of its most powerful: a woman with an infant is being pursued by giant blue hands that she cannot escape. However, the perspective (narratively as well as visually) quickly shifts to that of the Draags. The back-and-forth between giant and tiny perspectives is one of the many charming qualities of the film that help to build a dreamlike atmosphere.

The main aliens we are shown are the Draags. While the Draags are shown practicing many things humans do (government, education, meditation), the film’s creative potency is found in the unnatural and mysterious ways in which the Draags perform these seemingly normal institutions. A large portion of the film takes place in what seems to the human perspective a vast wilderness. But it is revealed to simply be an abandoned park for the Draags. Tribes of humans struggling for supremacy, from the Draag perspective, are just infestations that need to be exterminated. Moments in the story like this help us to contemplate the real world and ways in which more privileged members of society can dehumanize those of lesser privilege. However, Fantastic Planet never tries to substitute creativity with preaching. Any commentary on real world affairs just arises naturally out of the search for good ideas and tantalizing imagery.

Although the story could be described as social allegory, the film is also deeply concerned with showing weird monsters and other realities for the fun of it. In every scene, the alien world presented to us is packed with strange phenomena: plants with human faces and landscapes that turn to crystal that can only be shattered by whistling. At one point, the main characters pass by a monster in a tree cage with a long nose that branches off like roots. It uses this nose to catch smaller monsters, shake them, and throw them to the ground dead. This scene has absolutely no bearing on the narrative, but serves as one more example of how intent the filmmakers are on presenting a totally unearthly experience. In this, they succeed very well.

However, they do not do this by visuals alone. The soundtrack to Fantastic Planet was arranged by jazz pianist Alain Goraguer. While on the one hand the music sounds hopelessly dated, in its own way it perfects the whole absurd experience. It reminds viewers that they are not just watching a vision of the future; the film also reflects the ideas of a time that is decades past. The idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film just wouldn’t be the same without the combination of its allegorical story, fascinating creatures, and dated soundtrack.

Anything that can be drawn can happen in animation. This seems a simple enough statement, but few makers of cartoons take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium. This film does. Fantastic Planet manages to be totally of another world while still totally of its time. It seems hard to believe that such cartoons could be produced in our day, although perhaps Adventure Time could be seen as a spiritual successor. In any case, it would still be nice to see more animation today crafted with as expansive of an imagination as that of Fantastic Planet. Running just over an hour, it is well worth the time for any fans of retro-futurism and those interested in curious artifacts from the history of animated film.


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