FANTASTIC PLANET BluRay Review
Or rather Eureka: Masters of Cinema!
Half a year later than initially advertised, René Laloux' animated science-fiction film "La Planète Sauvage" was released a few weeks back on BluRay.
A unique film with a very distinctive style of animation and artwork, Eureka had released what could be called the best English-friendly DVD in 2006, four years ago to the week. I reviewed that edition in January 2008 when Laloux' other two features were released by Eureka as well ("Les Maîtres du Temps" and "Gandahar"), so I will copy my impressions about the movie itself straight from that earlier review.
The part where I'll talk about the BluRay will be all new though: the people over at Eureka really went to work this time, providing an absolutely stellar disc which keeps everything that was good about the DVD and manages to fix most of what was fixable. For starters it has a new HD-transfer which is worthy of being called that. Yummie! Read on...
Short History Lesson:
In the late fifties and early sixties René Laloux worked in a Psychiatric Hospital where people were being treated for depression. As part of a therapy program he hosted a series of creative workshops about painting and shadow-puppetry, and eventually started making short animation movies with the patients. These used only "simple" techniques like moving paper cutouts but nevertheless a few of these shorts were shown at festivals and even won prizes!
This brought Laloux in contact with professional artists like Roland Topor and he started making short movies with them. Several collaborations later Laloux and Topor decided to make a full-length feature based on the science fiction novel "Oms en Série" by Stefan Wul.
That movie became a Czechoslovakian-French co-production where Roland Topor created all the designs, René Laloux did the direction and a team of Czechs led by famed animator Josef Kabrt drew the actual film. It premiered in 1973 as "La Planète Sauvage" (international title: "Fantastic Planet"), and at Cannes it won a special award while also being nominated for the Golden Palm itself.
A race of giant blue humanoid aliens called the Draags have visited Earth, a devastated post-apocalyptic world with few traces of civilization left. The Draags do encounter humans though, living as savages, and take some back to their homeworld Ygam. To them, humans are the size of mice and the Draags fail to recognize human intelligence, so they keep humans as pets called Oms (which sounds exactly like "Homme", the French word for "Man").
Some of these Oms escape though, and start breeding in the wild. As the Draag life-cycle is much slower than the human one, soon these wild Oms have reached alarming numbers and become annoying pests. When the wild humans start to steal food, the Draags begin to devise ever more cruel ways to exterminate them like you would vermin.
One human called Terr notices nothing of all that, being the pet Om of a young Draag girl called Tiwa. When Tiwa receives her school lessons telepathically through a walkman-like device, Terr discovers the apparatus works for him too. This enables him (amongst other things) to read the Draag language.
Unsatisfied with his "kept" life Terr escapes into the wilderness, taking one of the learning devices with him. He joins a "wild" Om colony and uses the device to teach his fellow humans how to survive better. When the Draags decide that humans have become dangerous and must be totally exterminated, pets and all, it's a race against time for Terr and his friends to see if they can find a solution which will keep them alive, even if it means having to leave the planet Ygam...
The first thing you'll notice about "La Planète Sauvage" is the very distinct style of its animation. It resembles the shorts Terry Gilliam created for Monty Python but never humorously so, placing the imagery somewhere between the medieval paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and religious icons of the past few centuries. This seems like an odd choice for a science fiction movie but you get used to it fast, and it allows the creators to show the very bizarre landscapes and wildlife of planet Ygam in a relatively cheap way. It looks beautiful too and unlike anything else I've seen as a feature-length movie: just check the screenshots I've put up here, they speak for themselves. These visuals are coupled with a very trippy 70's soundtrack, again an idea which seems jarring but actually works wonders together with the images. The combination makes the movie timeless rather than dated.
Script-wise, the story is told in a leaden seriousness which would damage lesser materials. The mass-gassing of humans evokes memories of the holocaust of course, but Laloux aims a bit higher and targets Mankind's general behavior towards anything it deems inferior to itself.
And it's not just the casual exterminations either. Even the treatment of Terr by Tiwa is revolting to watch, the more so because it is stressed that the girl "really loves her pet". It is a tough love though, because whenever Tiwa gets bored the games she plays with Terr turn into the guileless torture all (unchecked) children seem to be capable of. As such this endless display of human indignity, suffering and persecution should be far more difficult to watch than it actually is.
But there is always something interesting to see on planet Ygam and Terr's adventure story is exciting to watch. The creators obviously didn't cater to anything apart from their own artistic view, and because of that the viewer never really knows what's going to happen next. This film is so far removed from Hollywood that you can't automatically assume a happy ending, and this adds a lot of suspense.
Speaking of the ending: it resolves a bit quickly, in the cinema it must have been blink-and-you've-missed-it. At 72 minutes "La Planète Sauvage" is also rather short, but maybe I should call it "crisp" because I didn't feel at all cheated.
In case you didn't suspect it yet: this is not exactly a children's film. Eureka (or rather the BBFC) rates this DVD "PG" but the film was clearly made with adults in mind. Some Draags wear very revealing outfits while the humans are naked, half-naked or wearing rags. Mating rituals of both humans and Draags are shown, but far more disturbing is the seemingly unending variety in which the tiny humans keep getting eaten, squashed, shredded, poisoned, radiated and stomped on by both Draags and the local flora and fauna.
And it still looks gorgeous!
This is a beautiful work of art which combines serious sci-fi with fanciful designs, a distinct style and a big message. A classic which is very highly recommended.
About the BluRay:
When Eureka released the DVD back in 2006, according the themselves they went with the best transfer they could find. Not an idle boast either: the only bad thing that could be said about it was that it was interlaced and "combed", a drag when you wanted to freeze the image. In fact, despite not having a high-def DVD transfer like Eureka's other Laloux releases ("Les Maîtres du Temps" and "Gandahar"), the DVD image was still SO good that you might wonder if an upgrade to HD BluRay was, strictly speaking, going to be a huge difference.
I even took the screenshots in this article from the Eureka DVD, as my PC can't take proper stills from the BluRay. Besides, for these specific shots (where there is no combing apparent) there is no noticeable difference when the image is scaled down to 350 pixels.
Well, wonder no more: when seen in full 1080p glory, the video quality of the BluRay disc is pretty damn good. As mentioned above"La Planète Sauvage" looks like it's completely pencil-and-crayon drawn, and now you can see each individual drawing in its full manually made glory. Even the tiniest scribbles can now be seen clearly, and freezing the image is a delight. It also looks remarkably free of blemishes and scratches.
That's not to say that it is absolutely perfect: the image is very grainy at times, and there is some slight telecine wobble (especially noticable during the credits). Still, it's a big improvement and during the film itself I didn't spot any issues.
I've already mentioned the noteworthy soundtrack, and while this disc doesn't stun in the audio department it is as good as I want for a 35-year-old cult movie. Subtitles were already pretty damn good on the DVD, but Eureka has redone them for the BluRay and claims they are improved. I haven't watched the two side-by-side to spot the differences but, well... both versions were good enough for me.
Both the original French dub and the English dub are included and noticeably improved when compared to the DVD, and as a nice extra Eureka has put the soundtrack on the disc as well! Saves me buying the CD, and this is the sort of extra I really appreciate.
Speaking of extras...
As usual with Masters of Cinema this release contains an excellent booklet. The DVD had a 40-pager containing an essay by Craig Keller, and the 56-page included in the BluRay has this exact same essay, pictures and all. But Eureka also added some extra artwork, design sketches by Roland Topor, and a 1973 interview with Laloux about the film's release. Very interesting, and classy of Eureka to include. Keller's essay is definitely worth checking out and while I wished he would provide more of a "making of" and less musings about the concepts explored, he still provides you with a wealth of information.
The best extras on the BluRay consist of five short films by Laloux. These include the two titles which were also on the DVD: "Les Escargots" and "Comment Wang-Fo Fut Sauvé". Also included is "La Prisonniére" which Eureka previously had put on their "Gandahar" DVD release. Two shorts are presented by Eureka for the first time: "Les Dents du Singe" and "Les Temps Morts".
Here are mini-reviews for each short, cribbed from earlier reviews wherever possible:
"Les Dents du Singe" (the Monkey's Teeth, 1960)
This is the award-winning short that got Laloux seriously noticed in the French animation industry. Written and drawn by a group of mental patients as a therapy assignment, it tells the wild story of a dentist who steals the teeth of his patients to sell them all over the world to rich clients. Thankfully, a monkey magician on a bike intervenes...
The short starts with a black-and-white documentary about the hospital and its patients, and how the movie came about. It then switches to the story itself in full-color animation, all done with paper cut-outs. It looks amateurish but there is no denying the creativity on display. Laloux often told people that he thought this group of mental patients were good scriptwriters because they had learned to accept each other's unusual ideas and nobody was accused of being "crazy".
"Les Temps Morts" (Dead Times, 1964)
Laloux' first collaboration with Roland Topor is a mix of archival footage and Topor's drawings. A narrator tells of humanity's favorite pass-time: killing each other. Frankly I found this to be a rather pretentious short. The ideas presented here would be far better discussed and executed (haha) in "La Planète Sauvage", a few years later...
"Les Escargots" (The Snails, 1965)
A farmer tries desperately to get his failing crops to grow. When he discovers that his own tears are the miracle cure his plants need, he is delighted and even invents different ways to keep crying.
Unfortunately, the snails which eat his crops also get a growth spurt and become a civilization-threatening menace to humans.
This is just about the perfect extra on this disc. "Les Escargots" features the same collaborators (bar the Czechs), use of techniques and concepts as "La Planète Sauvage", but is wickedly funny. While the version on the Eureka DVD of "La Planète Sauvage" suffered from the same ailments as the main film, for the BluRay this short was also given the royal High-Definition treatment and can now be admired in full 1080p. Bravo Eureka!
"Comment Wang-Fo Fut Sauvé" (How Wang-Fo Was Saved, 1987)
This short was made for French television and features a vastly different style compared to the other two movies on this disc. René Laloux was already busy making his "Gandahar" feature-length film at the time with a team of North Korean animators and he used the same people to create this short. By the way, "North Korean" is NOT a typo, the team was actually based in Pyongyang. In this film, based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn (of "Kwaidan" fame), a painter's apprentice in ancient China explains how his master incurred the wrath of the emperor yet managed to escape torture and death.
René Laloux considered this to be maybe his best work and it is indeed stunning. The artwork is simple yet stylish and complements the story perfectly.
A pity then that the transfer is based on such a poor print! Two green cables are visible throughout most of the film and parts seem out of focus, like there was something wrong with the projector. Please, get someone to remaster this! But I'm sure Eureka did their best and if there is not a better version out there I commend Eureka for at least including this one.
"La Prisonniére" (The Captive, 1988)
This is a short film which René Laloux made with Philippe Caza, who he also made "Gandahar" with. It's about two orphans hiding from war in a city dedicated to silence. The city also holds a female prisoner who has a plan to escape, and wouldn't you know it that plan includes... an army of nude big-breasted women, a staple of Caza. The drawings are beautiful, especially in their use of color, but unfortunately the video and audio quality is quite bad.
The last extra on the BluRay is "Laloux Sauvage", a recent 27-minute documentary on Laloux consisting of several long interviews with the man himself (shortly before he died) and several of his collaborators. Laloux shows he was anything but humble but in the interviews he was also refreshingly honest about mistakes he made. There are several golden nuggets to be found here, such as the fact that "La Planète Sauvage" was delivered unfinished with four sequences missing, partly the cause of the eventual short running time.
All in all Eureka earns major bonus points with this BluRay. They've included everything that was on their DVD-release, improved audio and video quality significantly, ported over some extras from other DVDs and added a few completely new ones. Especially the inclusion of "Les Dents du Singe" is very much appreciated!
In short: this disc is VERY much recommended. Note though that while the DVD was (and is) regionfree, the BluRay has for some reason been encoded "Region B" (Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zeeland), so make sure your player can handle that should you choose to import.