When it was originally released in 1973, Fantastic Planet immediately attracted considerable attention from critics who praised its surreal atmosphere, singular animation style and design. Undeniably, a good chunk of the reason why this film instantly became (and perhaps continues to be) a bottomless well for interpretation is owed to the artistic stamp left by Roland Topor. Some might even suggest that without his signature outlandish animated vision Fantastic Planet wouldn’t be half as rich as it is; and though there may be some validity to this statement, it is much safer to assume that René Laloux’s film is a prime example of a sum-of-its-parts film, or – better yet – a lightning in a bottle.
Let’s perform a thought experiment and imagine Fantastic Planet without its psychedelic music. Or maybe imagine it drawn with a different hand. Imagine Oms and Draags visualised completely differently. Imagine their animation executed in a different manner – less compartmentalized or jolty. Imagine Roland Topor was not involved. Imagine it as a Studio Ghibli film. Imagine it made thirty years later. Or earlier. Granted, one could still contend that the story itself would persevere (after all it was adapted from a pre-existing material) but the fact remains that it was made at the right time, in the right way and with the right people involved to ensure it would leave the mark it did. Fantastic Planet became a unique example of cinematic symbolism that (a) lends itself to multiple interpretations and (b) invites even the unprepared viewer to engage with the film on an intellectual level.
Hence, this seemingly straightforward narrative about a race of blue superior beings (Draags) and their relationship with much smaller and evolutionarily inferior Oms on a titular fantastic planet of Ygam has been interpreted and re-interpreted a million times. It has been noted that the film was an allegorical take on slavery, The Holocaust, animal rights, The Civil Rights Movement, various environmentalist causes and much more. And the beauty of how this film is built is that all of these readings are correct because the film as a whole is an allegorical chameleon. It doesn’t function as a collection of symbols that the viewer has complete freedom to interpret at random and still get something out of the experience. It is rather an invitation to project a wholesale meaning onto the film, likely influenced by the viewer’s own worldview, which then supports an iterative assignment of each little element of the narrative to fit the interpretation. Thus, it is a vehicle for a viewer to learn something about themselves because not everyone will see in Fantastic Planet a clear allegory for The Holocaust. By the same token, some viewers will not see it as an overt commentary on slavery. Some will be able to identify many of those readings but will implicitly find themselves drawn to one they feel most at home with, which is where the learning process truly begins.
That’s at least how I choose to see this film. I did see it as a commentary on a whole host of atrocities from the past. I may have even scratched my head a bit trying to see it as a generalized commentary on the pattern of behaviour characteristic to humans that extends well beyond any socio-political ramifications. In fact, as I was processing what was unfolding before me, I realized the film’s true strength lied in its thematic generality. By removing all semblances of cultural markers that the viewer could latch their interpretation onto, Fantastic Planet became an equivalent of a parable or an ancient myth whose role isn’t perhaps to describe the world and comment on anything specific but rather to teach the viewer about the general concepts governing the universe. In simplest terms, Fantastic Planet is a sermon about the simple observation that – culturally speaking – life is a zero-sum game. Some win at others’ expense. Some thrive and others wilt. Some are gods and others are their underlings. An asymmetric scenario of this extraction fosters abuses of power.
I wouldn’t necessarily think Laloux’s film is intended to rouse spirits or rally political upheaval of any kind. It is rather a detached sociological observation intended to have a purely pedagogical use. Fantastic Planet is a teaching tool (perhaps not for the youngest audiences) to expose its audience to some fundamental truths about the human nature which nobody is exempt from. We are cunning creatures and – as historical evidence suggests – it doesn’t take much for any group of people to utilize even the smallest asymmetry of power and influence to disadvantage others. Whether it is possible to train ourselves culturally and evolve past this pattern of behaviour remains to be seen; the film does not opine on this. What it does is teach about the importance of paying attention and illustrates just how abundant enslavement and extermination by category are in our collective cultural consciousness. We like to think of tragedies like The Holocaust as isolated examples of unusual concentrations of evil, but – as Fantastic Planet suggests – they are merely manifestations of an extremely general human characteristic pervading our entire historical record. And this realization scares the hell out of me.