Looking back at the animated films of Rene Laloux

Laloux's three feature-length animated films are all fascinating and worth tracking down, as Aliya explains...

How often in animation does the quality of the drawing take precedence over the development of an original plot?

Disney films tend to fall back on traditional fairy tales, Pixar concentrates on a child’s view of life, and Studio Ghibli has used novels by writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones to provide inspiration. These studios create beautiful stories that adults and children alike can enjoy, often as much for the quality of the animation as for the emotional messages that the films put across.

Laloux’s animated films are not like that. He used animation as a tool that could be stretched to fit his incredible imagination, and tell his unique stories. When you watch a Laloux film you are not being asked to admire the skill of the animators, but to engage with concepts that could not be represented in any other way.

Laloux was born in Paris in 1929, and studied painting before working in a psychiatric institution, and making his first short animated films with the interns there. He made three full-length animated films later in his life with varying degrees of recognition, collaborating with some of the most gifted and challenging artists of his generation. All three of his films share key themes: the difficulties of communication; the dangers of acquiring power without understanding; and the inability of humanity to see its place within an ecosystem. And the strange creations that live in his far-off worlds are interdependent, bringing both beauty and cruelty to their planets – because Laloux saw how these concepts could not, in nature, be separated.

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Here’s a look at each of his three films in turn.

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Laloux’s first and most famous film is set in a future time when humanity has been captured and transported from Earth to a distant planet by creatures hundreds of times our size. These creatures, named Traags, rename us Oms and keep humans as pets for their own amusement, not realising we are capable of higher thought. But when some Oms escape and start to breed in the wild, de-Omming measures are implemented by the Traag government to control numbers. So Oms start to plan a more permanent escape, and find a way to retaliate.

This description makes the film sound like a story of escape and triumph for humanity, but that belies the complexity of Laloux’s vision. Traags are not evil and Oms are not guiltless. All species are capable of acts of love, and of cruelty. It is only the difficulty of accepting that difference does not mean that intelligence or emotion is necessarily lacking that leads Traags and Oms to the brink of a terrible war.

The film was a collaboration with Roland Topor, a French artist, actor and author who wrote the novel The Tenant, which Polanski later filmed. Topor designed the production and co-wrote the script, which was animated by Czech illustrators at the Jiří Trnka studios. I think the stop-motion technique used here is the most effective of Laloux’s three films, and reminds me of a cross between Dali’s paintings and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python sequences, bringing a strangeness and a delight to the parts of the film where we see creatures on the planet interacting. A giant bird with four legs and an enormous sticky tongue laps up Oms; small balled creatures cover Oms excitedly with their fluff, creating clothing; animals kill or be killed without any reason we can name. These vignettes give us the feeling that we’re watching an ecosystem at work, and the Traags are correct when they call humanity a plague. We don’t belong in that world, and can only upset the delicate balance.

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It is science fiction at its best, reminiscent of the novels of Stanislav Lem in being able to put across a convincing experience of how different an alien intelligence might be from our own, and how little sense this might make to us. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack by French jazz pianist Alain Goraguer. The music fits the images perfectly.

Les Maîtres du Temps (1982)

Nine years after Fantastic Planet, Laloux collaborated with influential French artist and writer Mœbius on this tale of an orphaned boy, Piel, on the dangerous planet of Perdide, and the space travellers who race to save him from the brain-eating hornets that killed his family.

Mœbius was the pseudonym of Jean Giraud, the creator of a series of widely acclaimed surrealistic comics, and storyboard consultant and designer on a number of films, including Alien and The Fifth Element. He also worked with Marvel on The Silver Surfer comics in the late 1980s, and contributed concepts for Jodorowsky’s unfilmed version of Dune. A formidable figure in design, his influence on Les Maîtres du Temps makes for a very beautiful, languid film. The spaceships, the planets, and the creatures upon them all have an inner stillness; even the space travellers have long moments where we look upon their expressionless faces. Prince Matton is a particularly interesting character because of this technique – he is on the run from the intergalactic police for theft, and is quite happy to let little Piel die so that he can escape, but his amorality gives way to a great depth of emotion that eventually redeems him.

Here we aren’t dealing with one fantastic planet, but with many. The travellers land at various destinations and encounter different flora and fauna on both that prove inexplicable, beautiful, and dangerous. On one planet, telepathic creatures hatch and scream out for the visiting humans to stop their thoughts – our emotions are overwhelming. Elsewhere, a giant intelligence strives to swallow up all outsiders in order to reduce them to conformist blank-faced winged men. All of these experiences highlight the impossibility of one species to truly understand another.

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True communication between adults and children is also included as an impossibility here. The vast space between Piel and his would-be rescuers represents the fact that the child’s experience of life can’t be understood by the adults. Piel walks alone in a strange landscape that he can’t comprehend, skirting with great danger. Can he be saved? Laloux resolves the film with a time paradox that has particular meaning – only when the child is grown can it understand its place in the world, but by then it’s too late to go back. That place is lost.

Gandahar (1988)

This was Laloux’s last film, animated by a North Korean Studio, and then bought by Harvey Weinstein, cut and dubbed, and then released in the US as Light Years. Even though the dialogue in the US version was written by Isaac Asimov and the voice artists included Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer, and Bridget Fonda, I think the original version with subtitles is the one to watch, so that the important sexual element of the script is not lost.

For it is a film about life cycles – birth, death and reproduction, and how technology can interfere with those functions, making it the most adult and the most political of Laloux’s films.

Sylvain is a hero to the people of Gandahar. When blank-faced men of metal invade the planet and start to shoot their lasers, turning everyone to stone, Sylvain is ordered by Queen Ambisextra to find out where this threat has come from, and how it can be stopped.

Sylvain’s journey (a traditional quest narrative) takes him through different elements of Gandahar’s ecosystem, and leads him to a community of mutants, known as the Deformed. They sprang from the scientific experiments of Sylvain’s people, and were then cast out into the wilderness; but they do have the gift of being able to see the past, present and future simultaneously, leading to some innovative linguistic effects in the film.

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There’s also a love story, a sexual encounter, and an eventual confrontation between the people of Gandahar and another mutant, a giant intelligence that brings further information of how their own experiments have led to their downfall. Is this meant to be a warning of technological advances, maybe of nuclear power? Perhaps its more obvious message made it less involving for the viewer. Plus, the animation is the weakest of the three films, although the basic nature of it does bring its own simplistic beauty to Laloux’s creations.

The soundtrack was composed by Gabriel Yared, who also wrote the music for films such as Betty Blue, Cold Mountain and Troy, but most of his work was cut from the US version (another reason to avoid it). Gandahar may have flaws, but the music, its playfulness with language and form, and its commitment to explore adult themes, makes it worth watching.

Laloux died in 2004 from a heart attack, leaving behind a small body of work that speaks of an enormous and fruitful imagination. He explored film to its limits, realising that great themes, huge worlds, and demanding concepts could best be served through animation at a time when other means of creating special effects were not up to the task. Here’s hoping his work inspires a new generation of filmmakers to test the limits of their imaginations for our benefit too.