The more that I study animation, the bigger its differences (self-imposed and no) with cinema seem to go. This is because animation — as I’ve argued elsewhere — despite forcing a kind of irreality upon the viewer, requires no genuine suspension of disbelief, since we know that people don’t quite perceive the world in the way that animators depict. This is an often overlooked advantage, for it gives an artist leeway to break quite a few rules without necessarily compromising the art’s art, all the while putting the viewer into a receptive state of mind that wishes to further test boundaries. In fact, it is precisely this willingness to explore and engage that’s necessary for good art to flourish. It is surprising, then, that so few animated films have broached artistic greatness, a thing that might be remedied if the ‘why’ of such is better understood, and the word’s answers better applied.
Rene Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is a good pedagogical tool to this end, for it is well-scored, well-voiced, well-limned, intellectually, and well-animated — the last being true despite its simple appearance, which by its nature tends to heighten the Draag giants, diminutize the tiny Om, and deepen the more outlandish creatures, within, merely by stripping them down to a few salient parts, and mimicking the way child-like dreams and memories really work. Indeed, it is animator’s Roland Topor’s work that drives much of the film, both in the film’s overt decisions, such as La Planète sauvage‘s lingering shots and mnemonic imagery, to the smaller stuff, such as the heavy-handed shading, thus nicely recapitulating how a child might interpret (and conduct) the word ‘art’. Yet for all that, the film is more or less adult, and while didacticism hinders so much animation, from Soviet ‘classics’ (Hedgehog In The Fog) to even the most recent Japanese anime, it still manages to handle its ideas quite well, deftly turning away from its own arcs, at times, before things get too formulaic and predictable.
The film opens with a fleeing Om (identical in sound to the French homme), as a few blue-skinned Draag children torture her and her child with exotic-looking objects and reneged opportunities to escape. It takes the viewer a moment to get what’s going on, nicely imaging the sort of helplessness that the Om, themselves, might feel. They kill her, and Tiwa — a conscientious, pre-teen girl — decides to keep the infant as a pet. Named Terr (the film’s onomastics, if you can’t tell, are a weak point), he provides a pretty good voice-over: ‘good’ because it is succinct and does not needlessly recap what we’ve already witnessed, keeping things to an occasional sentence or two, the first of which (‘That was my first encounter with the Grand Master of the Draags’) tricks the viewer into accepting Tiwa’s father as the referent, even as Tiwa is the one to grow in stature over time — something that’s more obvious on a second or third viewing. In fact, Terr grows into a boy and learns Draag knowledge due to Tiwa’s own negligence, and runs away only when Tiwa seems to outgrow her ‘pet’. In a way, then, she is indirectly responsible for the Draags’ fate, which is ultimately a good one. Now part of the wild population, Terr shares his knowledge with the other Om, watches his people get chased (and killed) from place to place, and eventually becomes their leader, forcing the Om to assimilate Draag technology, discover their combatants’ weakness, and forge a truce that allows both to prosper on the planet Ygam and its (now) 2 satellites.
It is in this way, then, that we come to learn that Ygam is full of wild Om, which critics label to be ‘pests’ from the Draag perspective. This is technically true, as the Draag’s ‘de-Om’ campaigns go on to show, but this implies a carelessness, perhaps even an evil, on the Draags’ part, that simply isn’t there. Yes, kids torture Om, and the Draags do not trust them, but their behavior is decidedly amoral, which is yet another inversion of the didacticism implicit not only in animation, but sci-fi as a whole. The expected trope is to have a clear-cut enemy, yet the Draags are recognizably human, and the Om, amidst scenes of silly bickering among themselves, almost feel as if they’re getting precisely what they deserve. The viewer’s empathy is directed, re-directed, and torpedoed in ways that are uncommon to animation, with any need for some evildoer is obviated by the Om’s own patterns of behavior. The Om, for instance, ‘duel’ with their arms tied behind their backs, and beasts attached to their bodies (thus using them as the Om are used by the Draag); they live as tribes, forever at war, and are ridiculously ignorant, sometimes imparting a heavy-handed, allegorical quality to the tale that often gets ‘saved’ at the last moment by one or two tricks of the script. In fact, one of the film’s best moments is a seemingly throwaway shot of the Om after they’ve assimilated Draag technology, and are now sitting in rows, waiting to communicate. It is easy to miss, for it only lasts a few seconds, but is a set-up eerily reminiscent of the Draags’ own lecture hall, suggesting that all the races of the planet are intertwined by cycles they seem to take control of, but can’t quite fully understand. No, Fantastic Planet can never have the depth of the best films in this class, but these are, nonetheless, novel and interesting ways to handle the sort of intellectual queries which usually get little more than comic-book level treatment elsewhere.
Other stand-out scenes include the film’s ending, wherein the Om observe the Draag mating ritual: a dance between white, Greek-like bodies whose heads have been replaced with Draag avatars or ‘spirits’ (this is not explained). It’s compelling partly because the bodies are so clearly human, as opposed to Om or Draag, while the scene’s scoring implies a depth and magic that the Om cannot begin to understand, preferring, as they do, to find little more than weaknesses to exploit in the ceremony. It is a beautiful sequence that neither can allow to continue. Then, there are Fantastic Planet’s creatures, all uniformly well-designed, including an odd, plant-like being caged within its own body, which attracts small, bat-like animals that it grabs with his ‘nose,’ shakes to death, and throws against the earth. There’s both laughter from the thing and a recognizable face: another touch, really, that gets at the logic of dream-scapes and children’s way of viewing the world (and evil, in particular) that still respects kids’ intelligence. Yet one of the film’s best decisions is in how much it leaves unexplained — the what and why of the planet’s animals, the more obscure portions of the Draags’ meditation (such as when they change shapes before sleep), or why their mating ritual pivots on Greek and Roman statues that, in 1973, and still in 2015, are often considered — for whatever reason — the ‘peak’ of human civilization. None of this implies plot-holes, for none of this is necessary to the film’s more superficial movements. Yet over-explaining things that ought to function merely as hints would do away an allure, a desire to probe, think, that only mystery can adequately provide, and that goes well beyond the territory of plot, and into the deeper stuff of narrative.
La Planète sauvage is neither a great work of art, nor even the best example of what animation is capable of, but is still a very good film. More importantly, however, it is a film that suggests where animation’s greatest strengths lie — its lack of corrals, the ability to use mere archetypes as opposed to fully fleshed-out characters — and where its pitfalls run. Too often, animation’s historical trends, a la its audience, and the ideas the medium often attracts, is taken as a carte blanche to pander to just these elements in predictable ways. Despite its mere 71-minute run time, however, Laloux and Topor were able to push boundaries with something that, at first glance, just seemed so low-tech, so minimally processed, and un-dimensioned. Yet that stipulation, too, is important, since after a good work of art runs you through its tricks, novelties, questions, answers, and deceits, there is nothing left ‘at first glance,’ but much in the second, and even more for the third.