Fantastic Planet (1973) is a surreal, animated sci-fi fable of extraordinary beauty, cruelty, and strangeness. It used to circulate widely in the VHS era, when it was recognized as one of the most important animated films aimed at adults. In the DVD era, it’s been more problematic to get hold of. After a 1999 Anchor Bay disc with unremovable subtitles and an abortive release by Facets in 2007, we finally have this dazzling 2016 restoration on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion.
Aesthetically, the film is a colorful, dreamlike visual spectacle in which Roland Topor — an illustrator known for disturbing, violent, and grotesque visions — applied his imagination to dramatizing a novel by French SF writer Stefan Wul. Topor is credited as co-scripter with director René Laloux, who worked with Czech animators for a period of several years (encompassing the “Prague Spring” and Soviet invasion of their country).
Humans, called Oms (a play on the French word “homme”), are treated as wild vermin by the giant blue humanoid Draags on the planet Ygam. The Draags spend most of their time in a state that’s half transcendental meditation, half being stoned. Some Oms are kept as pets, and one of these uses Draag knowledge to become a kind of Moses, leading his people on an exodus to the dead moon known as the Fantastic Planet (which in turn leads to an abrupt ending). The story doesn’t matter, for every scene and image is hypnotically strange and confounding, and the limited, tableau-like “cheapness” of the animation is seen to its best advantage in this gorgeous restoration.
The film derives its intellectual power from the simple device of subjecting humans to the treatment to which mankind has subjected animals; the sophisticated Draag society isn’t evil, just unthinking in its perspective on Oms. The story is less applicable as an allegory of warlike, imperial, or totalitarian behavior, but that won’t stop people from projecting such ideas.
Similarly, although there’s a spiritual resonance to the Draag’s practices and the Oms’ superstitions, the story isn’t concerned with religious themes, such as belief in the supernatural. The huge and capricious Draags have an arguably godlike relation to the humans, but this never involves worship or any creation myth. Again, though, this won’t stop speculation, for any film this strange lends itself to interpretation even though, or precisely because, the story is so simple.
The animation process is articulated cut-outs put through stop-motion, thereby amplifying the uncanniness of the plot and the designs of the animals and organic structures. Alain Goraguer’s music combines jazzy passages with “futuristic” sounds, to unobtrusively expand on the otherworldly quality. We have the option of watching the French version (with subtitles) or the English dub, where some of the dialogue is slightly different.
This version features some extras from the British release by Eureka, including a useful documentary on Laloux that includes scenes from his first two animated shorts, which were made in collaboration with mental patients. Too bad the shorts aren’t included in their entirety, but we’re given his two shorts with Topor: the black and white Les Temp Morts (1965), a satirical anthropological report on humans as a species whose greatest talent is violence, with dry narration scripted by Belgian surrealist Jacques Sternberg, and the 1966 short Les Escargots, in which a farmer’s tears raise enlarged vegetables that lead to a rampage by giant snails. By the way, Sternberg wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ 1968 time-travel film Je t’aime, je t’aime, finally released on DVD last year.
Also included is an excellent one-hour profile of Topor from French TV in 1974 as well as a brief 1973 interview; he’s depicted as an iconoclastic cackler whose friends include fellow surrealist Fernando Arrabal, a novelist and filmmaker. In Laloux’s profile, he said they collaborated productively for ten years but that Topor, best known for writing the novel that inspired Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), wasn’t always easy to work with.
We also see clips from Laloux’s two post-Topor animated features. They’re described as less successful but I would like to see them released with the same attention. For that matter, I’d like to see Czech animation in general given the Criterion treatment. How about sets devoted to Jiri Trnka or Karel Zeman? If a lot of people buy Fantastic Planet, perhaps this fanciful dream may come true.