PSA: Fantastic Planet (1973), or A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Alien

26 03 2009

There is nothing quite like hand-drawn animation. Thirty years ago, when today’s feature was made, there was obviously no other kind of animation. But now, computer animation rules the roost at the box office and revels in cultural acceptance. You can barely find an animated feature in most major theaters (the last hand-drawn effort in theaters was Persepolis), and it is quickly becoming a novelty again, just the way it began in the early 20th century. The decline of original animation is certainly a blow to the artistic community, especially when one takes a look at today’s feature, a French and Czech co-production entitled Fantastic Planet. It is eerie, nightmarish, serene, and implacable, a completely original animated idea that must be experienced at least once in your life.

We are taken to an alien world, where humans, known here as Oms, live on a strange planet filled with aliens, known here as Draags. The Draggs are blue-skinned bipeds with astounding intellect, strange meditative powers, and tower nearly a hundred times taller than the average man. This is their planet, and with their physical might and superior mental acumen, they lord over the tiny Oms and keep them as pets. One Om in particular is a child whose mother is killed by roughhousing child Draags who played with her too rough. The child is left sobbing as the children run away from the scene of their crime. Another child Draag and her father walk by and see the young Om defenseless and his mother slain. The young female Draag, named Tiva, takes the Om as a pet and names him Terr. Terr grows fast while Tiva stays the same age (an Om week is a Draag year). She teaches him tricks here and there, but looks at him like nothing more than a domesticated animal (she dresses him up in gaudy outfits and forces him to interact with other Oms in similar attire). Terr is no pet, however, and he has a very inquisitive mind. He begins to learn things from Tiva’s educational headset that plants information directly into the brain, and he grows more intelligent, intelligent enough to read the Draags’ language. One day, he decides that he cannot handle life as a Punch & Judy show anymore and decides to run away, taking the massive headset with him. Out in the wilderness, he finds wonders and horrors of all kinds, and he also finds himself growing smarter the more he uses the headset. What will he discover about himself in the world outside of servitude? Will he meet other Oms like himself who longed for freedom? Will he have to wear any more ridiculous costumes ever again?

This movie is not for everyone, I’ll tell you right now. This is a very odd film. Captivating animation brings to life otherworldly creatures and a cacophony of other bizarre images that will stay with you forever. Director Rene Laloux’s character design is unforgettable. This really is a film that stays true to its name; it really is a fantastic planet. I can’t even describe some of the weird things going on here. We have bodies dissolving into other bodies (!), we have fields of naturally growing crystal that shatter when people whistle (!!), we have fights to the death involving creatures with large mouths being strapped to Om chests and used as weapons (!!!). Yeah, weird.

Apparently, the premise of the slave or inferior class revolting against their masters was a reaction to the Soviets invading the Czech Republic. In that respect, I can honestly see that theme come through, despite all the oddities present. It is essentially a story about the independence of a people, and the repeated attempts of another race to stifle them. The themes are very strong and very bold, and watching it is actually quite empowering. Terr is the radical, the Lenin, the Mao Tse Tung. He rebels against the Draags, the Tsarists, the Kuomintang, and his battle is representative of our struggle for both individuality and independence from a tyrannical government. It is fascinating to watch as there are many layers of thought in this great little feature.

But the best part of this entire experience? The music. THE MUSIC! I am enthralled by this film’s eerie, ethereal music. It creeps into your head and will not leave. Alain Goraguer composed and recorded the entire score, and he deserves a credit bigger than the director in my opinion. It is a fuzzy, funky throwback to the sentiments of the early 70’s, full of noodling guitar work, mysterious background noises, and meandering melodies that stretch as far as the alien landscape Rene Laloux drew to the horizon. The most haunting aspect is the vocalizations. Watch the trailer and listen at the end if you want to hear a truly beautiful arrangement. It pulls you in, and as that is the ultimate achievement of a soundtrack, I highly recommend buying this musical accompaniment on DVD.

This film deserves a lot more credit. It is French, so perhaps I can cut you some slack for not having seen this yet, but you officially have no excuse now. Watch it and behold the wonder of a planet not of our time, dimension, or comprehension. I think anyone who has seen my reviews and likes what I like will find providence in this little seen gem. And hopefully this will prompt some interest out there in good ol’ fashioned hand-drawn animation. I give Fantastic Planet 9 Oms and Draags out of 10! Check it out!

Keep an eye out later tonight for my insanely interesting review of J’accuse! Don’t be the last one to read it!