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The world of René Laloux’s 1973 animated classic “Fantastic Planet” (now streaming on HBO Max) is populated by humans known as Oms and giant blue aliens called Draags, who steal Omns and raise them as pets. The Omns lucky enough to escape Draag oppression live in fear on the planet Ygam, and every so often a group of them are slaughtered by Draags that wish to control the Om population. If the broad strokes of that storyline sound familiar, it’s because the allegory at the heart of “Fantastic Planet” remains as urgent as ever 47 years after the film world premiered at Cannes and won the Grand Prix.
Laloux cowrote the “Fantastic Planet” script with Roland Topor, a French illustrator and writer who had firsthand experience with oppression after his father was imprisoned in a Vichy prison camp in 1941. The premise of “Fantastic Planet” is so straightforward it’s impossible to miss its lessons. The movie follows Terr, an Om who is taken into Draag society as a pet after his mother is killed. Terr is raised by a Draag named Tiwa and as a teenager escapes with a Draag headset that plants new information in the user’s brain. Terr befriends a group of wild Oms and the stolen headset gives the oppressed the advantage they need to strike back against the Draags.
Within the story of “Fantastic Planet” are several vital observations about oppression. The Draags are presented as a spiritually and technologically advanced alien race, but none of that helps with their morality, as they commit Om genocide without a second thought. The oppressor lives in constant fear of the oppressed, even with better resources at their disposal. Peace is created between warring groups only after the Oms strike back against the Draags with violence, an outcome that doubles as an argument for peaceful resistance. Both sides suffer great loses before the Draags realize that violence does them no favors.
“Fantastic Planet” remains timeless because of its thematic obsessions, but all these years later, its legacy has been underserved. Google “Fantastic Planet” and you’ll get more stories about its psychedelic visual wonder and acid-trip landscapes than you will about the enduring topicality of its plot. Fair enough: To put it mildly, “Fantastic Planet” is one of the most eye-popping animated films ever made. The creatures that roam Ygam are striking (one memorable sequence finds the Oms hunting a pig-like bird with huge bat wings), the plants snap and crackle with personalities all their own, and the Draags’ advanced technology gives way to sequences of such hypnotic beauty that you don’t need psychedelics to feel like you’re tripping (see the famous moment when four Draags use a process called “Imagination” to braid their bodies and held them into each other).
The true brilliance of “Fantastic Planet” is how its trippy style works as a counterpoint to its metaphorical connotations. The film’s message on peace is clear, but it’s buried under the sheer visual intensity of the film’s animation. In order to grapple with the ideas of “Fantastic Planet,” the viewer has to work through all of the film’s visual pleasures to explore the substance beneath the surface. It’s easy to get lost in Laloux’s world, especially because sequences like the Draags’ meditation process are rendered with such transporting imagery, but the film’s power and importance is found only by those who stay focused on the narrative.
Consider the film’s whiplash of an opening, in which Terr’s mother carries him and sprints through the Ygam wilderness only to be taunted and flicked around by three Draags. The film begins with a moment of stark oppression, but it’s not presented in bleak or brutal terms. Alain Goraguer’s smooth jazz score clouds the murder of Terr’s mother in a relaxed atmosphere, while the warped differences in scale among the Oms, Draags, and the Ygam world around them elevate the situation to surreal heights. It’s easy for the scene to seem dazzling, but watch what’s really unfolding and you get the first warning sign about Ygam’s racial divide. Animated films have a long history of tackling issues related to identity and conflicting belief systems (see “The Iron Giant,” “Wall-E,” “Waltz with Bashir,” and “Persepolis” to start), but few use animation as an extra learning tool as well as “Fantastic Planet.” It’s not a hard movie to watch, but it’s a thought-provoking test about one’s capacity to push through distractions and discover what’s important.
“Fantastic Planet” is now streaming on HBO Max.
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