“Fantastic Planet” (1973)
by A.J. Hakari
Spread throughout this world of ours is an entire generation of kids that got messed up by Fantastic Planet. Just think — it’s animated, it’s from the ’70s, and it’s French, so in the eyes of parents who didn’t know any better, that had to mean it was educational and stuff, right? The sobbing youths who witnessed characters that looked just like them being stomped to death would beg to differ, but come to think of it, “childlike” is kind of what the film is shooting for. Fantastic Planet is very matter-of-fact in laying out its values and pleas for peace, and though it’s not always to the plot’s benefit, this frankness and a treasure trove of cosmic visuals make an effective double act as they ask viewers, yeah, why can’t we all just get along?
Some time in the distant future, mankind is a mere memory. Gigantic, blue-skinned aliens called the Traag are the new dominant species, regarding what’s left of humans — now known as Oms — as pests and playthings. This space odyssey begins as an Om infant named Terr (voice of Eric Baugin) is orphaned and quickly taken in by Traag child Tiwa (voice of Jennifer Drake). Initially raised as a pet and forced to humiliate himself for his owner’s amusement, Terr gains the upper hand upon accessing a device that greatly expands his intelligence. Angered by the standing of Oms in this strange world, Terr escapes into the Traag planet’s wilderness, gathering tribes of those like him to assert themselves and stake their place in the universe…or get squashed trying.
Fantastic Planet‘s original title translates to The Savage Planet, although both adjectives are perfectly appropriate here. Life amongst the Traag is harsh, not only from the coldness with which the beady-eyed behemoths look upon the Oms but from the various predators their home world’s nature was cruel enough to design. Cackling plants, buglike beings with vacuum noses, and other surreal monstrosities fill every frame, gobbling up prey and serving up nightmare fuel with equally extreme prejudice. Even seen as an adult, Fantastic Planet can be frightening, but only because it’s so identifiable. The very first scene — in which Terr’s mother is dropped to her death by Traag kids — forces us to put ourselves not only in the place of the Oms but their overlords as well. Losing your loved ones is an awful prospect, but how many times did you pick at an anthill as a child, not even out of malice or curiosity but just because? The film does a remarkable job of putting things into perspective, reminding viewers how easily we can inflict great pain as well as experience it.
So alright, Fantastic Planet creates an unsettling social environment and positively diabolical animal kingdom, all with the intention of scaring its audience straight and inciting within them a spirit of change. But how do its own characters go about achieving harmony? To be honest, I’m not even sure. The main issue with Fantastic Planet is that it’s more concerned with the people watching it being inspired to better themselves than with giving the people onscreen a satisfying journey of their own. For all the bad stuff that happens to Terr, he’s a terribly flat character, a stalwart viewer surrogate with just the bare minimum of insight and arc to call his own. He doesn’t have much of a personality and makes no foundation-rattling discoveries upon his escape, nor do we ever empathize with the Traag point of view. The movie’s final moments take them and the Oms to task, commanding the two to pal up already, without giving us an actual solution as to how they’re supposed to do that. It wants a truce that’s not so easy to call, and as a result, the climax of a passionately progressive story is nearly crippled by its own simplicity.
Though its third act isn’t a worthy follow-through to the creative and lapel-grabbing two that preceded it, Fantastic Planet is nevertheless a fascinating piece of work overall. Its values are sound, its collection of bizarre creatures is without end, and what works brilliantly does so because the film is so upfront with what’s on its mind. Fantastic Planet turns 40 this year, and in none of that time has it lost its ability to put those who come across it on edge.