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Toons for the Heads: Fantastic Planet and Adult Animation

  Although you can blame Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and its incredible Stargate sequence, animations for adults had been around ever since the inception of the medium, though almost always in short form. Walt Disney pioneered the feature-length cartoon with 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but from then on thanks to the more humorous element played up in the popular rendering, they were regarded as kids' stuff for much of the audience, certainly in the West. Even innovators like Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren or Lotte Reinger were wont to appeal to the youngsters no matter how intellectual their projects became, but come the nineteen-seventies, there was an effort to craft for the adult market.

The reason for that would appear to be one thing: psychedelic drugs. The Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine had in 1968 broadened the scope of what a mainstream animated feature could be, and while Disney had the likes of Fantasia or Alice in Wonderland in their canon to prove mind-bending developments were very friendly to this style of filmmaking, they were nevertheless aimed at family audiences since it would have been commercial suicide to target an exclusively adult audience at the time they were made. But the Fab Four's excursion (which the band had little to do with aside from providing the soundtrack) demonstrated that there was a market for the younger, hipper audience to find entertainment in efforts that were, no more, no less, "far out..."

Yellow Submarine combined with the Stargate could be one way of describing the signature effort in this line once the nineteen-seventies had arrived, though many would look back on the animations intended for children that wound up on television and asked in cynical smugness, "Hey, what were they smoking?!" But just because The Magic Roundabout or Crystal Tipps and Alastair presented wild, colourful, dreamlike imagery that was influenced by the counterculture artists of the previous decade didn't mean their creators were off their faces when they dreamt them up and worked on them, for one thing it would have made it pretty difficult to hold a pen or brush or stop-motion puppet. That was the case with René Laloux's Fantastic Planet as well.

Fantastic Planet, or Le Planete Sauvage to give the film its original title, slotted into the more serious end of the grown-up animation field. Yes, Ralph Bakshi had shaken things up with Fritz the Cat, his 1972 adaptation of the Robert Crumb comic book, as that was more focused on a simultaneous celebration of and takedown of the hippy era as it soured into the new decade, and if you found its humour funny, you would doubtless be congratulating yourself for at least some experience of its milieu and character types. But Laloux was more cerebral, his script adapted by cult writer Roland Topor from a science fiction novel by Stefan Wul in a way that sci-fi had developed under the likes of Stanislav Lem or Philip K. Dick, as paperbacks in their deep, deeply strange vein sold well.

Fantastic Planet was a hit with those "serious" science fiction fans, which had its dark side admittedly (see how Scientology snared the imaginative), but Laloux used his hand drawn technique to be more political: this was the era of The Vietnam War, after all, and the narrative that saw the oppressed rising up to defeat the evils of colonialism was all over the culture, reaching its apex that decade with George Lucas's Star Wars in 1977. That also made it cool to like science fiction, though the hardcore rankled at this populism in "their" genre that no longer tried to expand the consciousness, but it was too late, the genie was out of the bottle and the genre was being used to tell all sorts of broadly conceived stories it had been developing with, for instance, Planet of the Apes.

And indeed 2001: A Space Odyssey, both hits released the same year as Yellow Submarine and a watershed in repositioning humanity in the universe as had previously been seen by more conservative eyes. In Fantastic Planet, the basic premise was, what if the human race had been reduced to the level of insects? When alien invaders use us as their pets at best, and a pest at worst, where does that leave us? Would we rise up and attempt to reassert ourselves, despite the aliens' advantage in technology and size, for that matter? Or would we be beaten down, humiliated, once more to be oppressed? Given the traditional ways fiction handles that, you would not be surprised at the result, yet it was the imagination run riot on a world with bizarre flora and fauna, and the obvious drugs references laced throughout, that boosted its predictable tendencies.

It's a movie that can best be described by the word "trippy", and that's what was emphasised in the advertising to get the heads into the theatres. When Roger Corman picked up a dubbed version to be distributed by his New World company, one of many European films he helped to publicise and gain interest in, the ad campaign stopped short of telling the punters, "Get high and watch this!", but that was certainly implied, not that many of the youth market of the seventies needed much encouraging. Yet by the point the eighties dawned, works like Fantastic Planet, Belladonna of Sadness and Coonskin had been elbowed aside for Heavy Metal, which reverted to juvenilia, and the innovators were once again consigned to relative obscurity outside of the tastes of cineastes: your Jan Svankmejer, or Brothers Quay, while a new generation embraced the (commercial) possibilities of CGI. This leaves Fantastic Planet as a relic of its day, but one which still impresses as nobody makes cartoons like it anymore, not exactly, so worth revisiting.

[Click here to watch Fantastic Planet on MUBI.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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