Today’s animated films, while certainly enjoyable for adults, are expressly made with children in mind. As sophisticated, emotional and thematically powerful as offerings from Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks Animation and the other studios can be, they still tend to traffic in stories, imagery, designs and conflicts that are readily accessible to young minds. Of course, there are a number of exceptions like Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, and A Scanner Darkly, but many of those are specialty releases, their distribution dwarfed by the likes of Zootopia or Finding Dory.
Yet adult-themed animation has been with us for decades, taking off in the 1960s and 1970s after the film rating codes changed and yielding such counter-culture classics as the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968), Dirty Duck (1974), Heavy Metal (1980), and the works of the one-of-a-kind Ralph Bakshi, including the X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973), and American Pop (1981). Emerging during that same period — and providing a rare glimpse of animation produced out of France — was Fantastic Planet (1973), conceived and directed by Rene Laloux in collaboration with the cartoonist, satirist and writer Roland Topor.
Based on the 1957 science fiction novel Oms en Serie by French writer Stefan Wul, Fantastic Planet (a.k.a. La Planete Sauvage) was set on a world called Ygam, where small humanoid creatures called Oms — who look and speak more or less like us — are dominated by Draags, giant beings with blue skin and red glowing eyes. The Draags see the Oms as little more than animals, with those not domesticated and made into pets forced to live in the monster-laden wilderness outside the Draag cities and often culled by the Draags to keep their population in check.
In the opening scene, three Draag children tormenting a female Om pick her up and drop her to her death, ruefully noting that they “can’t play with her anymore.” That female, however, leaves behind a small child, who is adopted as a pet by a Draag child named Tiva. She names him Terr and while she cares for him, she also keeps a collar on him so that he doesn’t run away. However, the collar inadvertently allows Terr to also absorb the same knowledge that Tiva does when she undergoes education via special headphones.
It’s that knowledge that provides Terr with an unprecedented advantage after he finally runs away and joins the Oms living in the wilderness. Sharing the knowledge with other Oms, Terr leads them to build a settlement for themselves in an abandoned Draag city, where they hope to launch rockets that will take them to Ygam’s satellite, the Fantastic Planet (a.k.a. the Wild Planet), and allow them to live in peace. But the Draags, feeling threatened, hatch a plan to exterminate the Oms before they can escape.
It’s a heady, heavy, and complex story, introducing all kinds of bizarre concepts in a fast yet casual manner that forces the viewer to keep up. Ygam is a world utterly unlike ours, and the Draag are a truly alien race; they use a kind of meditation to travel outside their bodies for meetings — more like couplings — with other races throughout the cosmos. The meetings provide them with the physical and spiritual energy to continue as a species. Yet despite their advanced intelligence and evolution, they treat other living beings – the Oms – like animals or playthings, showering them equally with love, cruelty and indifference and callously discussing their genocide. The political and racial metaphors are abundant and often downright disturbing, such as in one particular scene where groups of Oms are chased into pits and gassed to death.
Fantastic Planet was actually a co-production between France and Czechoslovakia, since France lacked the kind of animation studio needed to create the picture while the Czechs had a much higher view of animation and more funding for it as well. Work on Fantastic Planet began in 1967, briefly stopped in 1968 when money dried up, and then almost came to a halt entirely later that year when the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia. Despite its political themes, the movie somehow managed to survive and start production again in 1969, although it took four years to finally complete.
Laloux had already made a name for himself by landing a job at France’s famously progressive psychiatric institution La Borde, where he collaborated with the patients on a series of animated shorts. One of them, Monkey’s Teeth, won a prize in 1960 as the best French-made animated film of that year. But a true partnership began when he met Topor, the French writer, painter, actor and filmmaker who was known for his surreal and often macabre drawings (he also wrote the novel The Tenant, which was the basis of Roman Polanski’s eerie 1976 film, and played Renfield in Werner Herzog’s 1978 remake of Nosferatu).
Topor’s unique style provided the unmistakable and psychedelic look of Fantastic Planet, further enhanced by character designer Josef Kabrt and background designer Josef Vana. The film was created through the use of cutout animation, in which figures and objects were literally cut from paper, cardboard or other materials and moved around in front of the backgrounds. The earliest form of animation, it’s a far cry from the computer-generated and more photo-realistic fantasies of today but has a simple, stark power all its own. Even though its relatively short (72 minutes), you don’t want to tear your eyes away from Fantastic Planet because of the colorful, weird, rich, and intricately detailed world it creates – something out of a science fiction fever dream.
Fantastic Planet premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 and even won a special prize; it was rare enough for an animated film to get any sort of attention at Cannes. It also won the International Jury Prize at the Trieste International Science Fiction Film Festival (an important European sci-fi event of which a version still takes place today) and did well with both critics and audiences around the world (I remember seeing commercials for it on local New York TV at the time of its release – imagine that for a weird-looking foreign film!) Laloux continued to work in animation and made two more full-length animated sci-fi features, titled Time Masters and Gandahar, but died of a heart attack in 2004.
The vision created by Laloux and Topor (who left us in 1997) in Fantastic Planet, however, lives on. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s was an incredibly fertile period – arguably the finest in film history – for science fiction cinema, and it’s appropriate that an animated feature be included in any discussion of the genre’s best offerings of that era. Fantastic Planet more than fits the bill, while also standing out as one of the most thought-provoking animated films of any kind as well. It’s difficult to imagine a movie as heady, weird, dream-like and otherworldly coming out in 2016 – even today’s adults might not grasp it.
Fantastic Planet was released last month on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection in a digitally restored new edition that also includes two early shorts by Laloux and Topor, a 2009 documentary on Laloux, a 1974 TV segment on Topor and a 1973 interview with him, a trailer and an essay by critic Michael Brooke.