La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) Review
Presumably, there are films in which the viewing experience is heightened when under the influence of any number of mind-altering substances. Much rarer, though, are movies where the actual viewing creates the illusion of being in some otherworldly state even when stone cold sober. Such is the 1973 animated feature La Planète sauvage, also known as Fantastic Planet or The Savage Planet. It's a prime piece of evidence in the argument that cinema can effectively act as a drug without the need for any external ingestion.
The film, directed by Rene Laloux and with invaluable contribution from collaborator Roland Topor, was a Czechoslovakian production with its roots in France. It followed three animated shorts by Laloux, the last two of which were made with illustrations by Topor (this disc contains all three, as well as two later efforts by Laloux). The director chose Stefan Wul's novel Oms en série as the source material for the feature and, after Topor bowed out due to concerns about the necessary time commitment, animation was undertaken in Czechoslovakia. Topor's designs consisting of rich, storybook-like drawings characterized by a cross-hatching technique are nonetheless the dominant model for the look of the film.
The plot is steeped heavily in science fiction, never shying away from the various twinkles of weirdness that can be explored when such a genre is combined with the fantasy-friendly capabilities of animation. Oms, closely resembling humans and forced away from their home planet after it became uninhabitable, are hardly bigger than bugs in comparison to the large blue Draags, creatures who value their knowledge, enlightenment and meditation abilities. The Oms are either domesticated, meaning they serve as something like a cross between toys and pets to the younger Draags, or they are considered uncivilized savages and reluctantly co-exist in areas outside of the main community. The superiority of the Draags largely goes unquestioned until a domesticated Om named Terr escapes with a headset that younger Draags use as a learning device. Terr has been a happy companion to Tiva since he was brought there as a baby, but when she grows tired of her toy he seeks those of his own kind. They have far less knowledge and understanding of the world of the Draags than Terr but he slowly gains their trust, eventually letting them know that the Draags plan a genocidal elimination of the Oms.
Much of this speaks, somewhat simplistically, to political implications of various ideologies and concerns. It might be generic enough as to be separate from any actual events and thus exist in a broad manner, like some of the Studio Ghibli films, as a statement against ideas of intolerance and negligence rather than pointed attacks on certain figures or movements. Well and good, and all the better to not completely kill the buzz. The film is at its strongest visually and aurally. You simply don't see animation with such layers and depth as what's on display here. It greatly supports repeated viewings, and is as good a reason as any to want to cherish this one in the home library. The somewhat unique look was accomplished using cut-outs rather than animated cels. As Laloux states in an interview found inside this release's booklet, such a technique doesn't particularly lend itself to natural displays of movement but it does have the advantage of a "great graphical richness." There's plenty of room in animation for both types.
Aside from a bevy of strange images that are better seen than described - though it is worth noting how strong an appreciation someone involved seemed to have for nipples - the psychedelic freak-out of Alain Goraguer's score is a major high point of the La Planéte sauvage experience. It adds greatly to the film's generally outré embracing of stylistic divergences. Only on a second viewing, after putting aside concerns of plot and unconventional filmmaking decisions, did the more antagonistic devices register fully. By antagonistic I mean that the film tends to reject normal concepts of animated visualizations and what should correspond on the soundtrack. It's instead refreshingly attuned to a consistent depiction of a world that's intentionally foreign and odd. Every single element that can be taken in by the viewer seems to be against most expectations. If the film indeed has a drug-like effect on its audience then why not partake and imbibe and relent to something so instinctively encouraging of that feeling.
Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series released this film previously on DVD as Fantastic Planet. The Blu-ray, now using the original French title of La Planète sauvage, replaces the earlier edition on the marketplace. It's restricted to Region B (or region-free) machines and carries, like other MoC region-locked Blu-rays, a statement for players unable to get past such restrictions.
The image for the film is in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It looks quite remarkable and achieves a very nice texture that would never be possible in standard definition. Grain is present and accounted for while damage is a nonissue. Colors are not overly emphasized in the film, which opts to avoid extremely bright tones, but the very sensitive, precise palette looks gorgeous. Assuming a cartoon with blue creatures can be described as having natural-looking colors, this transfer more than passes the test.
Native audio is found in a French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. It's fine and clear and without incident. Also included, somewhat reluctantly it seems, is the original English dub audio (DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, as well) that accompanied the American release of the film. I watched the movie twice and listened to both tracks in full. I found them to have their own individual strengths and would actually recommend those inclined to hear each in full. The dub is well-done and even has Barry Bostwick as one of the voices. English subtitles are optional and they are white in color.
The MoC DVD included two of Laloux's five short films (with a third on the Gandahar release) but the Blu-ray has upped the ante to make all five available. The middle one in terms of chronology, "Les Escargots," most resembles the animation of La Planète sauvage and it also looks the best here, presented in full high definition. The rest of the shorts are in various degrees of watchable but hardly stellar quality. Brief attempts at descriptions plus runtimes for the shorts follow.
"Les Dents du singe" (1960) (13:51) - In 1.33:1, Laloux's first short begins by establishing that it was made by mentally ill patients at an institution. The animation then proceeds to wildly culminate in a showdown between a dentist and a monkey. Gleeful and inventive.
"Les Temps morts" (1964) (9:47) - Laloux's first collaboration with Roland Topor, in 1.33:1 and black and white, seems more socially responsible or even political in nature than the other shorts included. It cites humans as possessing upper limbs for the purpose of engaging in violence.
"Les Escargots" (1965) (11:15) - A surrealist delight where a farmer cries tears to grow what appears to be cabbage, in turn attracting snails that grow so large they become unmanageable. It's the only short presented in a widescreen format, though I believe it was 1.33:1 on the DVD.
"Comment Wang-Fo fut sauvé" (1987) (14:55) - This too is quite an impressive work. It tells of a man accompanying a famous Japanese artist who paints things which end up looking more beautiful than they do in real life. The men face an angered emperor who is displeased with the artist's improved version of reality. The short seems to have been made for television and is in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
"La Prisonnière" (1988) (6:33) - A pair of odd-looking creatures escape to a place where voluptuous naked women reside. It's not quite as exciting as it sounds. There's a small green line that persistently appears on the right side of the 1.33:1 frame.
The disc also contains an informative little featurette on Rene Laloux and his work called "Laloux sauvage" (26:11) that's from 2003. The filmmaker is present and interviewed. You'll probably want to see this if you have any interest at all in these films.
Alain Goraguer's soundtrack can be heard from the disc as an additional supplement, though there isn't a separate CD with the music on it.
Finally, there's an excellent booklet that runs 56 pages and is quite a sight to behold. It contains a lengthy essay on Laloux and his career by Craig Keller, one of the MoC principals. Also included is a reasonably instructional interview with Laloux conducted around the time of the release of La Planète sauvage. Even with a larger than necessary type, the booklet is a typically wonderful addition to an already definitive package. I suspect this release might fly under the radar a little but there's little reason not to give it a chance. The film is a mesmerizing example of blending quality animation with socially-conscious science fiction and you're not likely to see it presented any better in the foreseeable future.