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Angels and insects
A UK region 0 DVD review of LES MAITRES DU TEMPS by Slarek
 

It seems, in retrospect, a little odd that the work of French animator René Laloux is so hard to track down in the UK, given the positive critical response that his 1973 Fantastic Planet [La Planète sauvage] continues to elicit. Mind you, even Fantastic Planet eventually did a vanishing act, disappearing from public view in the years following its cinema release and becoming one of those films that you could read about but not see, a situation finally remedied by last year's DVD release from Masters of Cinema.

Les Maîtres du temps [Time Masters] was Laloux's follow-up to Fantastic Planet, although the nine year gap between the two films almost calls for alternative terminology. Stylistically they're unmistakably the work of the same director, something particularly evident in the electronic score, the dream-like atmosphere, and the surrealistic creature and landscape design. That said, Les Maîtres du temps kicks off in the style of a Hollywood actioner, the sort of urgent, high speed opening usually employed to assure short-attention-span audiences that there'll be some more of the same soon if they can just wait a few minutes while we lay out the plot. Here it's a chase, or at least half of one, as the adult Claude and his young son Piel flee in their insect-like land vehicle from an attack by giant hornets. While attempting to keep the truth from Piel – the hornets have killed his mother, after all – Claude desperately attempts to contact his friend Jaffar, who we soon learn is not even on this planet. Jaffar's not answering, so Claude leaves a message, a usefully brief bit of exposition that outlines the seriousness of their situation and their intention to head to the Dolongs, a vegetated region that has René Laloux written all over it. No sooner do they arrive than Claude crashes the vehicle and is mortally wounded. He urges the still unaware Piel to run and hide, giving him an egg-shaped microphone which will enable him to communicate with Jaffar.

This 3-minute sequence is the setup for a relatively straightforward plot involving Jaffar's journey to the planet Perdide to rescue Piel before he's killed by the hornets. The pleasures, and there are many, come from the detail and presentation. Jaffar is from the Han Solo school of space travellers and is, for a sizeable fee, transporting Prince Matton and his female companion Belle to the planet of Aldebaran. Matton's on the run, having nabbed the entire contents of his planet's public treasury and is thus not best pleased when his mission is put on hold for the rescue bid. Under a cloak of indifference, he does his sneaky best to sabotage things, while Belle takes pity on Piel and uses the communicator to reassure and comfort him. Having grasped only the basics of his father's instructions, Piel believes that the egg is actually a creature named Mike and that the voices emanating it are those of his diminutive new friend, a concept that sails perilously close to cuteness but just about comes off.

Jaffar's journey is further interrupted to recruit the help of old friend Silbad, a cheerful, kindly, white bearded old codger of the sort Will Geer might have played had this been made as a live action piece in 1970s Hollywood (not likely, as it happens). It's from here that Laloux's imagination really starts to run free, particularly in the floating, saucer-like shrews that give birth to a gaggle of small floating telepaths, two of whom, named Yula and Jad, join the crew and are the first to suspect Matton's wrong-doing when they sniff out his bad thoughts. Equally memorable are an army of faceless angels under the control of a creature composed of pure thought, a solid science fiction concept undone by an unlikely dose of old-fashioned (and very suddenly discovered) nobility.

Where this film significantly differs from its illustrious predecessor is in consistency of design and animation – Fantastic Planet has it, Les Maîtres du temps doesn't, the result of working with six different teams of illustrators over an 18 month period after the project had been moved to Hungary to keep production costs down. Jaffar in particular looks and moves like a Master of the Universe, whereas the animation of the impish Yula and Jad is a constant delight. This variance in style is matched by a couple of offbeat shifts in tone that include two songs (well, one and a half) and some Disney-esque comic relief involving nicely animated creatures that Craig Keller, in the accompanying booklet, likens uncharitably to Jar-Jar Binks. That's pushing it a bit, but I can see where he's coming from.

None of which should put you off in the slightest – if anything this variance of style and tone adds to the film's quirky charm. Les Maîtres du temps is an engaging and inventive slice of animated science fiction that rides on its art and imagination and has oodles of both. There are even a couple of late surprises and a neat final twist for those who thought the plot was looking a bit by the numbers. Of particular interest to sf fans will be the ship designs, which were the work of genre legend Jean 'Moebius' Giraud. I particularly liked Jaffar's control deck, a sort of open plan living room encased in a large glass dome, somewhere to steer the ship, relax, and watch the stars. Now THAT'S the way to travel.

sound and vision

The first thing anyone who has the Masters of Cinema disc of Fantastic Planet (and you should) will notice is that the print for Les Maîtres du temps is in noticeably better shape, with little in the way of dust and dirt, very good colour and contrast and a consistently pleasing level of detail. The framing is 1.66:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is very clear and has a fine tonal range, reproducing the sound effects, dialogue and eclectic score well.

extra features

On the disc there's the Original Trailer (2:06), which paints the film misleadingly as an action packed adventure. The best stuff is once again in the accompanying Booklet, which contains a detailed essay on the film by Craig Keller and an interview with Moebius, both peppered with film stills, photographs and artwork.

summary

Likely to be of particular interest to both science fiction and animation enthusiasts, Les Maîtres du temps is a must for fans of Fantastic Planet or simply those who like their stories to be told with imagination and a dash or three of surrealism. It's well presented on Eureka's DVD and is artistically interesting enough to be a most valid entry in the Masters of Cinema series.

Le Maîtres du temps

France / Switzerland / West Germany / Hungary 1982
75 mins
director
René Laloux
starring
Jean Valmont
Michel Elias
Frédéric Legros
Yves-Marie Maurin

DVD details
region 0
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Boolet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
22 October 2007
review posted
21 October 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews