As with The Third Man and Once Upon a Time in the West before it – to pick just two titles out of the bag - Fantastic Planet would be a much lesser film without its soundtrack. A lush animated adaptation of Stefan Wul’s science fiction novel Oms by the Dozen, this 1973 Franco-Czech co-production is a complete audio-visual treat. Though dated by some of its more psychedelic flourishes (not to much the use of wah-wah on the score, somewhere between odd funk and even odder disco) Fantastic Planet nonetheless succeeds in introducing its audience to a completely new world. Strange and symbolic, the planet of the title is home to the Draags, a race of blue giants, and the Oms, a human-like species who the Draags have co-opted as pets though some exist as wild tribes out in the less densely populated areas. The former are the more intelligent of the two, yet the Oms appear to be catching up on this front courtesy of our hero Terr, a confrontation seemingly inevitable.
As a piece of animated science fiction, newcomers may very well expect something akin to the early eighties’ feature Heavy Metal or the countless cyberpunk animes which clog up that particular market. Closer to the truth, however, would be comparisons to Norman McLaren’s calmer output from roughly the same era: the looser, more contemplative likes of Spheres or A Phantasy, both titles which could have served as alternatives here. Director René Laloux, here making his feature debut, goes against the grain of full-length big-screen animation, eschewing the more populist styles of contemporary Disney or even Ralph Bakshi, and turns in something altogether more distinctive. Indeed, there’s little sense of compromise, even when it comes to the representation of the planet itself. In this case a quick nod to Oliver Postgate’s The Clangers is surprisingly apt inasmuch as the entire world feels as though it’s governed entirely on its own means: the “aliens” have their own vocabularies, their own way of doing things, their own value systems, their own bizarre plant/animal life, and we’re merely witnesses to it all, a voice-over in both cases allowing us that little extra grasp on things which, otherwise, may very well have escaped us entirely. In other words, as science fiction Fantastic Planet is utterly pure.
And so it makes sense that Laloux’s approach is more that of anthropological fascination than it is one of exploiting narrative hooks and plot devices. Our director is forever curious, always turning his attentions to odd and insignificant moments even as the “story” kicks in. His interests lie more in the allegorical and symbolic aspects, Fantastic Planet essentially being a humanistic paean to nature which has led some to comment on its prefiguring of Hayao Miyazaki’s similarly themed epics. Indeed, such an approach means that Laloux is never afraid, therefore, to show the more cruel and aggressive sides to his creations; as with the documentary filmmaker who specialises in comparable, albeit genuine, anthropological studies, he straddles that divide between the compassionate and the dispassionate – we’re never in doubt as to his passion for his subjects, but then that doesn’t mean that he’ll intervene in or edit their activities.
Furthermore, it’s this very passion which allows Fantastic Planet to succeed in the face of its narrative flaws. Often clumsy in this regard and ill-timed (the climax, in particular, feels rushed and consequently botched), the plotting nonetheless pales into insignificance against such a distinctive set-up. As long as we share in Laloux’s own fascination for this world and its inhabitants, the end results are rich enough to fully command our attention on more than one occasion.
Number 34 in Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema series, Fantastic Planet arrives in the UK in decent if not perfect form. The original aspect is retained and presented anamorphically, but the print is sadly not in the best condition. Though never less than watchable, there are moderate instances of damage to contend with throughout. Similarly, the original French soundtrack (here present in DD2.0 form and accompanied by optional English subs) doesn’t sound quite as dynamic as it should owing to age, although again it’s by no means given a poor representation. That said, the US dub, which is available as an alternative, does sound the better of the two, a fact which may draw viewers to this version as opposed to the original. Please note, however, that the dub track doesn’t offer an exact translation of the French and also feels, courtesy of its voice cast, more of a child’s film than it actually is.
As for extras the disc is accompanied by a 40-page booklet (featuring an essay by Craig Keller about Laloux, Roland Topor, and Alain Goraguer alongside various pieces of original artwork) and a pair of Laloux’s short films, the jaunty, if crude, Les Escargots from 1965 and Comment Wang Fo fut sauvé, a 1987 TV commission which sees the director adopting a more conventional style of animation to intriguing results. In these instances the films are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratios and, owing to the disc being in the NTSC format, both suffer from PAL-NTSC ghosting. They also come with disc generated English subtitles, although I found it impossible to switch them off in both instances.
Anthony Nield reviews the Masters of Cinema handling of Fantastic Planet, Rene Laloux's lush animated science fiction epic from 1973.