Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The origins of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion have us thinking about offbeat ’70s science fiction.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
This is not the recipe for a blockbuster: Take Terry Gilliam’s richly illustrated paper-cutout animation from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, remove the absurd humor, and replace it with a metaphor for the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Warsaw Pact occupation. But René LaLoux’s feature debut, the animated French film Fantastic Planet, is a more rewarding experience than that description suggests. While it’s sleepy and slow, less focused on forward momentum than on cosmic head-trippery, it’s strikingly beautiful, and deeply, surprisingly weird. Its elaborate fantasy world is as surreal as anything in Yellow Submarine (an apparent visual inspiration, to judge from the giggling, caged creature that grabs passing fish-birds and shakes them to death), but taken with deadly seriousness.
The story follows Terr, one of the many human pets of the Traags (Draags in the dubbed version), the gigantic, blue, fin-eared people that dominate his planet. Earth self-destructed long ago, and the remnants of humanity now survive as house pets, or in the wild, constantly risking extermination because Traags consider them non-sapient, fast-breeding pests. Terr eventually steals a learning device, learns his owners’ language, and leads a revolt again them, in what’s widely seen as a political manifesto: an illustration of a small, weak people educating themselves and using superior technology to take on a cold, powerful oppressor, forcing peace and mutual respect. LaLoux, a French director who went on to animate the also-surreal time-travel feature Light Years and the Moebius collaboration Time Masters, made the film in Czechoslovakia with French funding. At the time, it was a bold, sly statement that somehow slipped past the cultural censors. But these days, it holds up better as a woozy trip movie, the only animated movie where viewers can watch two men duel with their arms strapped down, and fanged, snapping worms strapped to their chests: “Go! Bring the animals of combat!”
Availability: Officially available only on DVD, though Netflix has it for rent, and it’s easily findable online.