It seems that each year we do Criterion Month, there’s always one movie that I end up picking that I have the least amount of context for going in. Fantastic Planet is probably that movie this year, as I really had very little prior knowledge of what the film was about or what birthed its brand of strange animation; I mostly just knew it was French and had giant blue alien guys in it. After watching it, the film does still feel kind of strange and foreign to me, but at the same time, there is plenty in both the film’s visual style and its allegorical sci-fi story for me to latch onto and wrap my tiny humanoid brain around.
Fantastic Planet felt especially odd and impenetrable to me because it’s the work of a director who never really became a world-renowned maverick of animation, as René Laloux only made two other feature-length films during his lifetime. Fantastic Planet, his first and most well-known feature, was a collaboration between him and illustrator and writer Roland Topor, and they had previously made two short films together employing a crude but arresting style. For Fantastic Planet, the two Frenchman decided to employ a Czech animation studio in Prague, since apparently that was a Mecca of European animation at the time.
The movie is also adapting the work of Stefan Wul’s sci-fi novel, Oms en série. The story takes place on a distant planet ruled by giant blue, slightly amphibious-looking beings called Traags. The Traags keep these tiny-looking people as their pets, which are called Oms (a play on homme, the French word for “man”) and more or less give them no rights or free will of their own. We follow one particular Om named Terr who is kept as a pet by the daughter of one of the royal Traags. Terr then escapes and finds a society of Oms living apart from the tyrannical rule of the Traags, who eventually seize on the idea to stage an uprising, though the Traags then quickly plot to eradicate all Oms from the planet.
So, basically the premise of Fantastic Planet is: what if there was a world where human beings were treated as pets instead of humans? This gives the movie plenty of room to swim around in the allegories of animal cruelty and even racial discrimination. It even takes on shades of the Holocaust when the Traags decide to carry out their plan to “de-Om” the planet. While the mythology and lore of the fantastic planet that the movie takes place on is sometimes a little hard to distinguish, at the least the movie has a rock-solid foundation of social commentary that makes it distinctive apart from its unique animation style.
Speaking of… this thing looks wild, man. The animation style is much closer to hand-drawn illustrations than anything I’ve seen, which also perhaps explains why the fluidity of the animation is also a lot jerkier than we’re typically used to. I’m no animation expert, but this aesthetic did make sense to me when René Laloux explained in one of the Criterion special features that his films with Roland Topor placed an emphasis on the graphic style and less on the movement, whereas American animation tends to do the opposite. While this does give the film a sort of simplistic, hand-made feel, it also allows for Topor’s imagination to create these kinds of odd, otherworldly visuals that you just aren’t going to see in mainstream animation, outside of say, Yellow Submarine.
It’s also hard not to talk about the film’s visuals without talking about the way they work in conjunction with its music. The score was done by Alain Goraguer, and it is incredibly ’70s-sounding (in a mostly good way), in that it’s this mix of prog, kraut-rock, and funk. It gives Fantastic Planet this almost drug-trippy aesthetic that it might not have had otherwise and makes the film feel like a very distinct product of the counterculture as well as how these new forms of consciousness had worked their way into comics and animation. To this end, Fantastic Planet did make me interested in exploring some of the weirder, non-Disney animators of the ’70s and ’80s, though unfortunately as we discussed on our Criterion Month podcast this year, Criterion seems to have a bit of a bias against the toons, so I may need to do that exploring elsewhere.