René Laloux’s ” La Planète Sauvage”: What a fantastic planet!

By on June 28, 2015

When Night Flight originally aired Rene Laloux’s 1973 stop-motion animation film La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) back in the 80s, it became one of the more memorable animated foreign films to ever have been shown on U.S. television, and it left a lasting impression on our viewers. The film is today recognized as one of the classics of seventies-era animation.

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La Planète Sauvage was directed by Laloux and production designed by Roland Topor — with a storyline written by the two of them based the novel Oms en série, by the French writer Stefan Wul… more about him in a sec — and animated at Jiří Trnka Studio, an international production between France and what was then Czechoslovakia. It was distributed in the United States by Roger Corman, after winning the Grand Prix special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.

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RENE LALOUX
René Laloux

René Laloux, born in 1929, had begun his creative life by wanting to be a painter, but had ended up working as a puppeteer, putting on shows for the patients at the Cour-Cheverny psychiatric clinic, run by Dr. Jean Oury. He made his first short film in 1960, Les Dents du Singe, which was a project written and drawn by the clinic’s patients, drawing attention to the clinic’s thought-to-be progressive ideas and unusual therapeutic methods. Les Dents du Singe won an award, the Prix Emile Cohl.

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By 1964, Laloux had met Roland Topor, and they began making films together, beginning with Les temps morts, an anti-militarist film, which combined Topor’s dark sense of humor with a crosshatched etching type of drawing, which was to become Laloux’s trademark style of animation right up until La Planète Sauvage. In 1965, Laloux made probably his best known, and best loved, short film, Les escargots.

By this time he’d established working with cut-out animation techniques, using puppets and cut-outs and filming them on an animation stand. Les escargots presents us with an everyday fantasy world: a gardener tending to heads of lettuce in his garden who unwittingly sets off a series of catastrophes. The film won numerous international prizes, including the Grand Prix at the Mamaïa Festival (Romania) and the Special Jury Prize at the Cracow Festival.

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Topor, meanwhile, had already started to become known for his work as an engraver, illustrator, screenwriter, and for his darkly humorous novels and short stories. By the late 60s, his artistic work had achieved an international reputation, and his work was exhibited in London, New York and Chicago. Laloux, meanwhile, remained relatively unknown outside of the world of short film animation, and he never really tried to become famous, choosing instead to paint and work on smaller projects, but it was working again with Topor that led to this animated feature-length film, La Planète Sauvage, which brought him international acclaim.

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Laloux, a longtime science-fiction fan, then persuaded Topor that they try to make a movie of the novel Oms en série, by the French writer Stefan Wul, which was the nom de plume of Pierre Pairault, a dental surgeon who wrote sci-fi novels in his spare time. Oms had been published in 1957, in the highly popular Anticipation series in the mid 50s by Fleuve Noir, who specialized in detective and espionage thrillers, but Oms‘s storyline, of warring races bonding in strange ways as each attempts to dominate or destroy the other, was unique even as it was already familiar territory (this story line was later ripped off by L. Ron Hubbard and his group of wackos).

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In the English-dubbed version of the film — which featured American actor Barry Bostwick — the title “Fantastic Planet” apparently refers to the small moon of a much-larger planet, though most of the story takes place on the latter. “Savage Planet” seems a better description of the mother planet itself; a working title for the film while it was in development was Sur la planète Ygam (On the Planet Ygam). Laloux had enjoyed reading the novel, which had imagined worlds and civilizations all of which had a naïve, surrealist feeling. This particular Swiftian allegory took place in an unimaginably distant future, where two intelligent species scrape for survival, the Draags, who are more advanced spiritually and dominate the planet, and the Oms, who are divided into two groups: the domesticated Oms, who are basically toys, slaves, or pets to the Draags, and the tribe of wild Oms, who live within the forest. The Draags are giants compared to the tiny human-like Oms.

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The film opens with a fleeing Om (sounding like the French homme, for man), as a few blue-skinned Draag children torture her and her child with exotic-looking objects and reneged opportunities to escape. While Draags sometimes make pets of Oms, they see them too as vermin that must be periodically controlled. Some of the latter live in the wild and are hunted by the former. Once caught and tamed, and the story’s protagonist is caught between his origins and his status as a domesticated pet, which inevitably leads to conflict with his masters. There are many good recaps of the movie’s story online that you can read for a more in-depth study, like here. There are also some comparisons, one would presume, between this series and the novels by French novelist Pierre Boulle, which were later adapted for a series of movies as the Planet of the Apes and subsequent others, although Laloux’s work is quite different in that it’s animated and the focus is on beauty, not ugliness.

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At the time, making a feature-length animated film was seen as a rather lofty challenge, but Laloux and Topor were persuasive and managed to meet up with several open-minded enlightened producers, such Anatole Dauman, Simon Damiani and René Valio Caviglione, none of whom had any prior animation experience (Dauman had been closely involved with the French New Wave cinema). They decided it would be best to work with Czechoslovakia on a combined effort, in order to have the most success; the filmmakers knew that the Jiri Trnka studio in that country which were far superior to what they had access to in France, and the Czech animators had also begun using more sophisticated 2D techniques — which they’d learned by working with an American animator, Gene Deitch, since 1959 — all of which would bring out the best in the film, regardless of whatever difficulties they might eventually face with the film’s country-of-origin or distribution, which proved even more difficult in August of 1968, when Russian tanks rolled in to crush the city of Prague.

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The film had to be set aside, and was only periodically worked on between 1969 and 1973, before the Czech authorities, who were unhappy with the film right up until it won the the Grand Prix special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival (where it was also in contention for the Palme d’Or). Roger Corman’s New World Pictures released the film in December of that same year here in the U.S., sometimes screened on a double-bill frequently with the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. When it first aired on “Night Flight,” on the USA Network, in the 80s, the film was probably seen by more people than at any particular screening prior. The film’s title sequence, incidentally, credits art directors Joseph Kabrt (characters) and Joseph Vania (backgrounds), as well as the DoPs Lubomir Rejthor and Boris Baromykin, and the intoxicating acid jazz soundtrack was composed by French jazz pianist and arranger Alain Goraguer, whose contributions to the film help provide it with an unmistakable voice in the dialogue-free scenes (of which there are many) and can be listened to independently of Laloux’s images while evoking the haunting imagery. Love those wah-wah pedaled guitars!

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Roland Topor

While Topor saw a film made in 1976 from his novel The Tenant, directed by Roman Polanski, Laloux subsequently experienced a long fallow period before he was able to make his second feature, partly due to the ailing state of the French industry at the time.

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He eventually joined forces with graphic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud to create Les maîtres du temps (Time Masters). Moebius co-wrote the script with Laloux and provided original designs for the animators, and it was made, in part, in Hungary, before the fall of the Berlin wall. Les maîtres du temps (1982) was also based on a novel by Stefan Wul, Lorphelin de Perdide. Laloux also made 1988′s Gandahar, released in the U.S. as Light Years, with an English-dubbed soundtrack featuring the voice talents of Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer, Bridget Fonda, and Penn & Teller. Sometime in the early 80s, Laloux had discovered Japanese animation which was then undergoing a real boom, but by the early 90s, he’d found himself as one of only a small circle of admirers encouraging the introduction of films from the Ghibli studios in France as he segued from animation direction into discovering new talent.

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Before he retired in 1999, he undertook a massive project on the history of animation by directing a film called Ces dessins qui bougent (Dreamland, 1996). He also initiated Les Enfants de la Pluie, an animated feature adapted from the French sci-fi writer Serge Brussolo, but in the end it was Philippe Leclercq, a former colleague, who directed the film, in 2002, on the basis of drawings by Philippe Caza. René Laloux died of a heart attack on March 14, 2004.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.