Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
De-Omisating the park
A region 0 DVD review of FANTASTIC PLANET / LA PLANÈTE SAUVAGE by Slarek
 

While the debate continues about whether live action feature films can really be classified as art, the case is and always has been a lot easier to make for animation. The animated short in particular is often a labour of love for its creator and free of the commercial pressures that most features are saddled with and that so many filmmakers find themselves battling against. Such films can and often do exist as expressions of the animator's artistic vision, and their pleasures relate less to character and narrative than the design and animation itself. Like painting or sculpture, an animated short can be admired and enjoyed for its composition and for its technique and can provoke an emotional response purely on the basis of its artistic qualities.

What works for ten minutes, however, cannot not necessarily be stretched to feature length, and the animated feature, although still easy to appreciate for its design and technique, generally requires a storyline on which the art can be hung. Animated features require a considerable amount of time, effort and money to produce, and those who fund them expect to see a return on their investment. Be artistic, sure, but at least tell a story that will get people into the cinema to see it. Which in some ways brings us full circle – given these commercial constraints, can an animated feature really be categorised as art? I am here to assure that it can. You want proof? It's right here, on this DVD, in pretty much every frame of René Laloux's extraordinary film.

If you've never heard of Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage – literally 'The Savage Planet') then it's hardly surprising. Made in 1973, it did its rounds of UK art-house cinemas in the years that followed, sometimes teamed up with a second, more commercial feature to get the punters through the door. I first saw it back in 1980 on a double bill with Ridley Scott's Alien, of all things. Don't get me wrong, I adore Alien, but this was still a peculiar pairing, and many of those drawn to Scott's sf/horror masterpiece would be unlikely to sit still for Laloux's equally distinctive but stylistically very different vision. Since then the film has sunk into virtual obscurity, at least in the UK (it has apparently found a small but devoted late night audience in the USA), and news that Masters of Cinema were to revive it for UK DVD release had me bopping about with glee. That first viewing had made a serious impression, but a lot of time had passed since then. Tewenty-six years and a LOT of films later, would it still look so remarkable, so innovative?

Oh yes.

La Planète Sauvage is, as the title suggests, a science fiction story, but one unusually strong on the suggestively subtextual. On the planet of Ygam, the diminutive, human-like Oms lead an uncomfortable co-existence with the giant, blue-skinned Draags. The Draags regard the Oms largely as vermin, but some of the Draag children keep them as playthings, holding them captive with collars that can be used to physically recall their wearers by remote control. The focus of the story is Terr, a baby Om whose mother is killed and who is rescued and domesticated by a young Draag named Tiwa. As Tiwa grows, her schooling is undertaken through a telepathic headset through which she absorbs knowledge, but unbeknown to her, Terr is able simultaneously receive the information. Eventually Terr escapes, taking the headset with him, and joins a colony of Oms who live in an big tree in a park. Armed with the headset, they set about improving their own knowledge, while the Draags continue their periodic process of Om extermination.

Although you'll find the dual species/master-slave/oppressor-rebellion story throughout science fiction literature and even film (Planet of the Apes anyone?), it remains a potent one because of its metaphoric meat in a world that seems incapable of learning from history. But if the story seems familiar then the handling is anything but. Working with graphic artist Roland Topor, composer Alain Goraguer and sound effects deviser Jean Guérin, Laloux creates an alien world like nothing you'll have seen or heard, a consistently extraordinary multimedia artwork in which sound, art design and movement are exquisitely combined into a vividly surrealistic whole. The occasionally recognisable touchstones are there – Bebe and Louis Barron's electric tonalities for Forbidden Planet, the playful cut-out surrealism of early Terry Gilliam animations – but the vision here is so complete that they feel more coincidental than in any way borrowed or adapted.

Although principally compelling for its technique – every few seconds there is something to widen the eyes or drop the jaw – the story still makes for fascinating reading and interpretation. The death of Terr's mother, for example, is the result not of calculated nastiness but the thoughtless game-playing of the Draag children, offering a reading that questions our attitude to all forms of wildlife, domesticated or otherwise. This is carried through in the treatment of Terr as Tiwa's pet, dressed in a variety of absurd costumes for its owner's amusement and held captive with a collar that can return him to his owner at the flick of a lever. The descriptions of Oms as vermin, the complaints about the speed at which they reproduce and the later extermination programme can't help but recall Australia's problems with wild rabbits and their attempts to control and ultimately wipe them out in the 1950s. But in making both species humanoid in form, Laloux inevitably invites an interpretation that has the Draags as an army of occupation and the oppressed Oms as their victims. Abused, domesticated and ultimately gassed in coldly systematic attempt at genocide, the picture is completed when the Oms learn to organise and fight back against their oppressors. It has been suggested that the film was a response to the 1966 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but the genocidal overtones more readily recall the horrors of Nazi Germany.

But this remains a subtextual element of a feature that is rightly celebrated for its achievements as film art. In that respect it remains a triumphant one-off, a very special work that vividly demonstrates the imaginative possibilities of a medium in which the imagination of the filmmakers, unconstrained by the cost of large sets or complex make-up and creature modelling, is truly able to run free. The animation can sometimes feel a little crude by today's standards, but Fantastic Planet is nonetheless a film to see and to hear and to treasure, then tremble in horror at the prospect of the threatened US live action remake.

sound and vision

Framed 1.66:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is not quite the transfer I had hoped for, the fault largely of a source print that is in less than pristine condition, with dust spots and film grain visible throughout, sometimes markedly so. In other respects the transfer is sound enough, with contrast and colour about right and the detail good, but a still few notches short of great. Potential viewers should note that this is an NTSC disc, which will present no problems on most modern TVs and avoids any conversion issues from what was presumably an NTSC digital original, but there may still be a few out there for whom this could be an issue.

There are two Dolby 2.0 mono soundtracks available, the original French and the first release US dub. In some ways they sonically show their age, not having the dynamic range of more recent films, but are clean enough nonetheless – certainly the music and sound effects come over well. Although the original French track is preferable and better voiced, the US dub is not at all bad, though small but occasionally significant changes have been made to the dialogue. The US track is slightly louder than the French.

The optional English subtitles are clear and, as far as my limited French can tell, accurately translated.

extra features

Although not exactly feature packed, the inclusion of two of René Laloux's short films, one made before and one several years after the main feature, is a very big plus.

Les Escargots (10:43) was made in 1965 and marked an earlier collaboration with Roland Topor and Alain Goraguer, whose contributions were so crucial to the distinctive style of La Planète sauvage. A surrealistic tale of a farmer whose failing crop is revived by his own tears, then is destroyed by giant snails that subsequently go on the rampage, it inevitably shines in its artwork but is also very funny in places, not least the farmer's methods of inducing a constant stream of tears, which include reading Shakespearean tragedies and a back-mounted machine for bashing himself repeatedly on the head. The quality is not bad, given the age and probable rarity of prints.

The second film, the 1987 Comment Wang-fo fut sauvé [How Wang-fo Was Saved] (14:55) was inspired by an old Chinese folk tale and based on the drawings of Philippe Caza. This is a beautifully drawn and animated piece that Laloux believed may have been his finest work, and is nicely transferred from a very good quality original.

An unusual but welcome extra is the music soundtrack, 25 tracks covering virtually the entire film and reproduced at pleasing quality. As a DVD extra it won't be easy to transfer to your iPod, but fascinating though it is, this is hardly exercise music.

Finally there is the usual MoC booklet which runs for 40 pages and contains an interesting essay on Laloux and his collaborators by Craig Keller in type large enough for me not to need my glasses to read it, plus some attractive stills, photographs and artwork.

summary

A still unique film experience is given pretty good though not exemplary treatment by Masters of Cinema. It's a shame that a pristine print could not be found, but the disc still scores serious points for the inclusion of the two Laloux shorts and what is effectively the soundtrack album. If you can make allowances for the source print, and Masters of Cinema's track record suggests that this is probably as good as you'll find for now, then for the films and the score the disc comes recommended.

Fantastic Planet
La Planète sauvage

Czechoslovakia / France 1973
72 mins
director
René Laloux
starring
Jennifer Drake
Sylvie Lenoir
Jean Topart
Jean Valmont

DVD details
region 0
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
French
English
subtitles
English
extras
Short film: Les Escargots
Short film: Comment Wang-Fo fut sauvé
Soundtrack
Boolet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
21 Augustl 2006
review posted
21 August 2006

related reviews
La Planète sauvage [Blu-ray review]
Les maîtres du temps
Gandahar

See all of Slarek's reviews