Produced during the tail end of the Panic Movement, an art collective formed in the 1960s by directors Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal and artist Roland Topor that sought to steal back surrealist art from the mainstream, the Topor-designed Fantastic Planet could easily have been staged on the same land that held Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. In actuality, it takes place on the planet of Ygam, whose desert-like topography contains illogical outgrowths such as gleaming crystal succulents, multi-limbed and seemingly sentient foliage, and hilly outcroppings with vacuum-like mouths. The inhabitants that call this landscape home are no less quizzical: enormous cyan humanoids with lidless crimson eyes and flappy scales for ears, and who go by the cryptically Norse-sounding designation of Draag.
Topor’s out-there designs are buttressed by the stabilizing presence of Oms, an inferior species on Ygam that look, sound, and move like ordinary men and women, but must live in constant subordination to their towering Draag masters. Directed by Frenchman René Laloux and written by Topor, Fantastic Planet is a storybook parable in which these Oms stage a last-ditch revolt against an impending De-Omization (read: genocide) at the hands of the Draag, who’ve grown apprehensive of their subservient race’s “terrifyingly fast reproduction.” One of the Oms, orphaned at youth and subsequently nicknamed Terr (voiced by Eric Baugin) by his loving captor, Tiva (Jennifer Drake), possesses the knowledge needed to outwit the Draag attack by virtue of having been inadvertently exposed to Tiva’s headset-aided groupthink education for his entire enslaved upbringing. But will he be able to convince the untrusting indigenous Oms that he’s not a collaborator?
Fantastic Planet’s blend of straightforward, almost elementary storytelling (any missing context is filled in via a voiceover by Jean Valmont as the adult Terr) with heady themes and eroticized imagery marks the film as a relic of an era with much looser standards around the dichotomy of the children’s film and the adult drama. Also pinning it to the early 1970s are the unmistakable assimilations of psychedelia into the Ygam ecosystem: The Draags nourish themselves by sidling up against sproutings of plant life and inhaling for extended periods of time, after which their souls, encased in tiny orbs, rise upward to attach to headless naked bodies, which then proceed to tenderly embrace. Casually liberated sexuality runs rampant on Ygam, from the female Oms whose breasts hang freely to the various phallic and vaginal estuaries in the landscape. Even the Oms’ rocket ships, which propel them to one of Ygam’s moons in a tactical effort to evade the Draag’s gassing assaults, leave no question as to what their shapes are meant to evoke.
The film’s visual style, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so symptomatic of a specific era. Placing high value in the potency of clearly, concisely drawn cutout tableaux, Laloux and Topor’s animation lacks the dynamism of, say, Jan Svankmajer’s contemporaneous work; at times, the film resembles a static picture book brought partially to life by cleverly placed sound effects and Alain Goraguer’s space-funk backing track. But the visual movement that has been integrated is distinguished by an eerie formality. One scene of Terr cozying up to her new Om pet sticks in the brain for the unsettling way intimacy is registered in stiff, exacting gestures, and the same can be said for a shot when a flurry of Oms attempt to climb a hill in retreat from poisonous fumes and drop to their deaths like lead weights.
With the exception of a few jolting zooms, the “camera” in Fantastic Planet is a cold, stationary observer, which only emphasizes the otherness of this world. Laloux and Topor’s most enduring achievement is in yoking this disorientating effect to familiar horrors; by the film’s conclusion, it’s hard to feel comfortable with similar episodes on our own imperfect planet.
Despite its array of shades, Fantastic Planet’s palette is fairly muted, with René Laloux and Roland Topor’s application of color singularly delicate. Criterion has been faithful to that almost pastel matte finish, neglecting to introduce vibrancy to match any perceived modern standard. It looks appropriate, but not remarkable. The elements at play throughout the minimal mono soundtrack—Alain Goraguer’s mixed-down score, sparse sound effects, and intimate voiceover work—are rather narrow, so there are few moments of sonic overload that ask much of Criterion’s state-of-the-art mastering team, but the results are of fine quality and free of imperfections, such as pops or hisses.
Despite the often-studied gloominess of Fantastic Planet, Laloux and Topor prove in their archival interviews to be spirited loonies. Topor, in particular, has a cackle so maniacal that it’s a surprise he never earned a supporting role in one of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films. Laloux has more to offer of actual substance in Laloux Sauvage, a short 2009 documentary that walks through his films, and in his own words. But Topor is the subject of the disc’s most substantive supplement, an hour-long Italiques episode from 1974 that dives deep into the illustrator’s artistic process (he gleans ideas from dreams, allegedly) and shows off all kinds of ephemera, in completed and sketch form, from his career. Two early short films—the grim chiaroscuro anti-war piece Les Temps Morts, from 1965, and the zanier portrait of supersized snail attack, Les Escargots, from 1966—embody the two sides of Laloux and Topor’s sensibilities that fused to form Fantastic Planet, while the liner notes, which fold out into a rather cheap-feeling poster, feature an illuminating essay by Michael Brooke, the chief insights of which revolve around the nature of the film’s French-Czech co-production.
It’s dispiriting to come across a Criterion package that’s merely pro forma, but this is still the best version of Fantastic Planet on the market.