My quandary with Fantastic Planet (1973) lies in the (literal) translation.
La Planete Sauvage is based on the 1957 novel Oms en Serie by French author Stefan Wul, but Sauvage doesn’t translate as the awe-inspiring “fantastic”. Instead, we get the darker side of wonder in “savage” – untamed, wild, animalistic. And what on the surface appears to be a whimsical cartoon turns out to be more of an adult-oriented animation, a reflection of both the times and the change in cinema codes.
Fantastic Planet bridges that gap between the psychedelic 60s and Yellow Submarine and the harder-edged tone of the 70s and animations like Ralph Bakshi’s notorious Fritz the Cat but also recalls the 60s obsession with all things Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau has a surface glamour about it with its sinuous lines and extravagant florals but hides a poisonous depth that speaks more of Beardsley’s fetishism and Mucha’s sexuality than it does of Klimt’s overt Romanticism.
And so it is with Planet. Set on the Planet Ygam, tiny humanoids live in constant terror of slavery and genocide from giant blue aliens called Draags who practice a bizarre meditation ritual. We first encounter humanoid Terr when his mother is murdered by a group of Draag children and he is taken and adopted as a pet by a female Draag child, Tiva. Fitted with a collar which prevents him from escaping, Terr soon discovers that through a fault in the collar’s mechanism he can pick up Tiva’s school tapes and becomes a knowledgeable (and thus powerful) rebel.
He manages to escape, meets a group of other rebels, and imparts this knowledge before a final uprising leads to a ceasefire between the two races.
Is the film then about racism?
Original production for the cut-out, stop-motion animation began in Prague in 1968 and ceased temporarily as August’s Soviet invasion and the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia forced the crew to shelve work until they could procure additional French funding and restart production at the start of the 70s.
And so Planet gains a more poignant and topical flavour with the reality of Soviet might crushing the Czech people contrasted against the fictional oppression of the humanoid Oms by the giant Draags.
There’s definitely an element of life imitating art, albeit after the fact. Planet doesn’t stray far from Wul’s original novel but 1968 still looms large from both the French side of things after the May riots and the Czech team’s memory of the Soviet Spring.
The film certainly opened up a new wave of animation.
It stands as a fairly rare example of French animation but the more European sensibility – a more subtle tone coupled with experimentation in visuals – is an eye-opener. The animation is quite static, the score jazzier in tone. It’s a refreshing change from the constant garish motion of a Disney film, for example.
But there’s another, to me, more telling layer. The Draags are decidedly warlike and oppressive creatures, and yet they indulge in an almost constant cycle of trance-like meditation. Is this perhaps a deeper commentary on the Me Generation with their endless quest for the next EST therapy and their avoidance of broader political issues and rebellion in favour of inner space and the pursuit of the Self?
It has what Hawkwind would call quark, strangeness and charm – and it definitely bears repeated viewing to peel away all those poisonous layers.