" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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If there is a piece of animation that sits on the far side of the cartoon galaxy from South Park, it would be Fantastic Planet. These two are as night and day. The acerbic and cynical South Park is matched by the dreamy and empathetic Fantastic Planet. Indeed the whole idea behind Fantastic Planet is empathy — putting yourself in the other guys shoes — whereas South Park seems hell-bent on mocking the other guy and the shoes he walked in on. I wonder if a Fantastic Planet DVD were set next to a South Park DVD, would they annihilate each other with a blinding flash, leaving only a smoking crater and whiffs of brimstone and ozone?

Give or Take a Decade

The human race has been taken as pets
The human race has been taken as pets

Fantastic Planet, directed by Frenchman René Laloux, was released in 1973. It has been said that when people today speak of “the ’60s” what they are really talking about is the 1970s, and Fantastic Planet is high ‘70’s stuff. It is full of touchy-feeley emotion and, as noted above, more empathy than is politically correct at this time. That means Fantastic Planet will look even stranger today that it did back in 1973. And it was intended to look very strange then.

Adding to the antique appearance is the disco-guitar/Shaft-esque soundtrack. At times there is an appropriately “weird” electronic music that sounds cribbed from the similarly named Forbidden Planet, but then here come the guitars again — and it all sounded so cool back then.

Omes: a Measure of Resistance

The story is based on the 1957 French novel “Oms en Série” by Stefan Wul. What’s left of the human race has been taken as pets to the alien world of the Draags, a race of blue giants with red eyes. Or maybe the humans stowed away on the Draag ships. Either way, by the time we catch up with them, some humans ( called “Omes”) are domesticated pets but most live wild in the abandoned and empty places of the Draag home world.

Terr is a male house-Ome who accidently gets a Draag brain-boost via his mistress’s teaching headset. The wised-up Terr runs away, dragging the giant headset behind him. He is befriended by a wild Ome female, and she takes him back to her tribe. Terr fights the tribal goon and becomes the new leader. He then gets the rest of the tribe on the headset’s fast-track learning curve.

Meanwhile the Draags decide the Omes have become intolerable pests and attempt to exterminate them. Terr and the surviving Omes (kind of sounds like a band name) sneak off to “an abandoned rocket port” (what? you don’t have one of those on your planet?) where they put their new-found knowledge to good use. In a leap of self-induced technological growth that would make Ayn Rand proud, the Omes develop space travel and journey to the moon that circles the Draag world. This moon is The Fantastic Planet. But to describe what happens there and why that moon is fantastic would be to give up the one bit of story the average viewer hasn’t already figured out for themselves, so I won’t.

Speculative Fiction

If this story sounds familiar, think back to Planet of the Apes or any sci-fi tale where the mice take over the Earth. Or think of Battlefield Earth: the shared themes of the “magical” acquisition of knowledge, the runaway slave who fights his way to the top of the wild humans, the alien oppressors’ hubris and final day of reckoning are all there. Did L. Ron Hubbard use Fantastic Planet as his model? Or is it just an old fantasy plot that they both picked up?

When I first saw Fantastic Planet, it reminded me of the William Tenn novel “Of Men and Monsters” published in 1968 (and originally appearing in Galaxy in 1963 as “The Men In The Walls”). Here again are the basic plot devices of tiny human vermin and giant aliens who occasionally exterminate them as nuisances. As Wul published his story in 1957, I now wonder where Tenn got his idea.

Drawn That Way

The thing that saves Fantastic Planet from being a tired exercise in sci-fi is its wonderfully imaginative landscape. In some ways it reminds me of Disney’s 1950’s vision of Mars, but seen through the filter of Yellow Submarine and Peter Max’s Pepperland. The graphic style is a distinctive pen-and-ink effect used by the French graphic artist Roland Topor and — again very 1970’s — almost like School House Rock but busier and more cross-hatched. Curiously, it also uses a kind of stop-action-looking animation that is like South Park itself. This makes for a stiff, wooden motion but is consistent throughout, so that’s the way it’s supposed to look.

The Draag world is imagined by Topor as a totally alien ecology. Stuff happens without explanation because you are not supposed to understand what is going on; it’s alien. Crystals form spontaneously like frost but then can be shattered by one whistled note. Odd animals go about eating each other. It’s all so cosmic, man! French fondness for existential post-apocalyptic landscape comes in to play too when we learn that the human planet once had some kind of civilization (when the Draags arrived, it was all in ruins).

And then there’s the Draags’ habit of meditation/tripping out (Draags... drugs... get it?). These are no ham-fisted blowhards, as they can project their consciousness all the way to the Fantastic Planet. They are always group melding with each other and thinking deep thoughts. The only inconsistency is that they somehow got it wrong when they assessed the humans as incapable of intelligence.

Deconstructing Fantastic Planet

As Fantastic Planet was a joint French / Czechoslovak film, it comes at the theme of oppression from two directions. From the west/French side it is post-French imperial but pre-PETA and there is a good dose of Rousseau’s “Natural Man” romanticism. From the east/Czech side, the Draags seem to have a lot of capitalist traits as they spend their time worrying about business (until they then have to start worrying about the rising masses of Omes). Then again, the Draags have big red eyes. Are they supposed to represent the Czechs’ Soviet oppressors? Even if that were the case, it made it past the Soviet censors probably because it is largely about the Working Man kicking the Big Boss’s ass around the block.

Fantastic Planet is a darned good film despite its corny appearance today. Experience it for yourself (experiencing films instead of just watching them, an artifact of the ‘70’s,has also fallen out of fashion.) Remember that what goes around, comes around, and tomorrow South Park will be equally quaint and despised. So get on the Fantastic Planet bandwagon now before everyone else does.

DVD Extras

The extras include an interesting autobiographical interview with René Laloux. This is a must-see if you know this film and an interesting back story if you are new to it. Laloux may be forever identified with Fantastic Planet, but this documentary shows that it was Topor who made it fantastic. Their earlier collaboration, Les Escargots, is also included, also a must-see for Planet enthusiasts. Also explained is the extremely abrupt ending. It seems that after working on it for years (even through the Russian invasion in 1968) the Czechs just said it was costing too much and quit.

Picture and Sound

This is a very good restoration of the original film. Of particular interest to me was seeing the film in the original French with English subtitles. The English dubbed version that I’m familiar with is still charming, with its flat and affectless voices that sound like they were taken from a health-ed film on hand hygiene, but it’s nice to hear the original French.

How to Use This DVD

Watch the film in French, but for a laugh check, out the English dubbed version. And don’t forget the Laloux interview.