March 14, 2012

The Works of René Laloux

Animation Director René Laloux passed away 8 years ago today, at the age of 74.

Best known for his 1973 classic "Fantastic Planet", based on the book "Oms En Serie" by novelist Stefan Wul. It’s set on a planet occupied by two races: the Draags and the Oms, the Oms (humans) are descendants of people from Earth, the Draags are gigantic, blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoids with enormous life-spans. They treat the Oms either as pests to be exterminated like rats, or as amusing household pets.

Fantastic Planet was the winner of the Grand Prix award at the 1973 Cannes film festival, It's definitely not animation for kids – the subject matter is pretty morbid. The tone is set in the chilling opening sequence, where an Om woman runs in terror… and is knocked down by a giant blue hand. The picture pulls back, and we discover that a group of Draag children are amusing themselves by toying with this helpless creature.

There are lots of familiar story elements in the film, hints of David and Goliath and Gulliver’s Travels come to mind. But it’s the designs by Roland Topor that make it so memorable and visually disturbing. All manner of surreal creatures move against a landscape that is littered with weird organic shapes; it’s like watching a cross between Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python and the surreal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Grotesque yet graceful, it’s a hallucinatory vision quite unlike anything you’ve ever see.

René Laloux initially went to art school to study painting. After some time working in advertising, he got a job in a psychiatric institution where he began experimenting in animation with the interns. It is at the psychiatric institution that he made 1960's Monkey's Teeth (Les Dents du Singe), in collaboration with Paul Grimault's studio, and using a script written by the Cour Cheverny's interns.

It was 13 years later that he released Fantastic Planet to film festivals and in select theaters through out Europe.

His last feature film Gandahar (Light Years) made in 1988, is about the prince of the planet Gandahar, who is sent to the future in order to avenge an attack on his home world.  He discovers metallic humanoids with a paralysing ray who send the bodies of those they capture through a portal. Later these individuals return, also encased in metal. Airelle serves as the love interest for Sylvain. He meets "The Deformed," a group of mutants who Sylvain at first mistakes for the enemy. The cause of this terror is traced to the giant brain Metamorphis, although Metamorphis is puzzled about how he could be the cause. The metal humanoids are coming back in time from the future, so Metamorphis offers to place Sylvain in stasis until that time. Sylvain awakens in 1,000 years as planned, and destroys the old, weakened, and now insane, Metamorphis.

As you can see, the plot for Gandahar is somewhat scattered and convoluted.
But as far as grand production design and animation quality is concerned, "Time Masters" (1982) remains his most ambitious and visually captivating. Designed by Jean Giraud (Moebius) and adapted from Stefan Wul's novel. It never reached the same success as Fantastic Planet, but it's my favorite of all Laloux's films.

The Plot: A little boy named Piel, is left marooned on the planet Perdide after both his parents have been killed by giant hornet-like aliens. Thankfully an emergency transmitter provides him with instantaneous communication with Jaffar, an old friend of his father. Jaffar convinces the current passengers on his ship, an exiled prince and princess, that a rescue mission must be undertaken. Its a long way to Perdide though, so Jaffar first picks up an old technician who knows that planet. Together with two telepathic aliens they start their mission to save Piel.

It's a fascinating piece of french animated sci-fi, that is well recommended for lovers of the genre and a must-see for all Moebius fans.

If you are unfamiliar with Laloux's films, I recommend to start with this one, then follow up with Fantastic Planet for a real head trip, they are surreal (like all his films) to say the least. He obviously had a love of sci-fi, and will always have a strong world-wide cult following. Proof of this is the many popular tributes, screenings and presentations made in his honor still today. One of which was at the 2010 Los Angeles Animation Festival, where the group JESUS MAKES THE SHOTGUN SOUND made a live performance of the film soundtrack to FANTASTIC PLANET - see it here.

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