Classic French Animations: “Fantastic Planet” (1973) and “The King & The Mockingbird” (1980)

La Planete Sauvage Poster Fantastic Planet (La Planete Sauvage) (1973)   

Once in awhile comes one animation which is so powerful in its message and so unusual in its presentation, it becomes quite unforgettable. “Fantastic Planet” is precisely such adult-themed animation, co-produced between France and Czechoslovakia. A winner of the Cannes Special Prize in 1973, this French-language animation has even been named one of the greatest (Rolling Stone). In its presentation, “Fantastic Planet” is highly imaginative, inspired by some psychedelic art and, as some commentators put it, by “cut-outs from Soviet science magazines” (CinePassion). Based on Stefan Wul’s 1957 science-fiction novel, Oms en série, the animation is about blue-skinned giants, the Draags, who keep as pets a human race of Oms on the planet Ygam. The animation may be a tad too disturbing in its content, but, because the world it creates is so fascinatingly strange, and because its concept of the fight to have freedom is so relatable, it is well worth all the attention and praise.

Our main character in the story is Terr, a human pet to Tiwa, a daughter in the family of the giant Draags. Tiwa plays with Terr as though he was a doll, while other Draag children also host battle contests between their little human dolls and use them for other entertainment purposes. When he is older, Terr manages to escape his Draag family and to settle into the colony of other Oms who live in the state of nature and whom the Draags at times gas to get rid of. What strikes one is an allegorical content of the story, with many themes and concepts mixing to establish a story of a fight against injustice and racism. The Draags think Oms are unintelligent beasts who are merely vermin, and, although they keep them as pets, they do not accord them much welfare consideration. To that effect, the story would have been completely surreal if not for the events in the WWII and other genocide practices around the world. Thus, despite fantastical presentation, the animation is capable of bringing to mind some very horrifying, but only too real imagery.  

La Planete Sauvage pictureThe power/importance of knowledge is another theme/concept of this animation. When Terr was Tiwa’s plaything, he was, unnoticeably to the Draags, receiving knowledge of the Draags through the special headphones which Tiwa wore on her head to receive her education. In that way, Terr gathered considerable knowledge about the planet Ygam and the nature of the Draag life. When Terr escapes, he brings to his colony of wild Oms the priceless headphones of knowledge. It is clear from this animation that knowledge is the true and ultimate power, no matter how small you are in comparison to your adversary, and that, whoever possesses the most up-to-date and true knowledge will ultimately win the battle. Thus, because Terr brought with him the educational headphones to his colony, the Oms were then capable of gathering knowledge and using Draag machinery, which gave them hope of freedom and salvation. 

If the plot sounds fascinating, than the animation presentation is even more so. The art design is done by Roland Topor, the author of “The Tenant”, later, a film by Roman Polanski. Topor’s imagery evokes the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and projects psychedelic experiences, with their bright colours and visionary distortions. The world, which the animation projects, is very imaginative: from plant to animal lives, and from planet’s atmosphere to surreal vistas. In relation to its visionary component, the fascinating element of “Fantastic Planet” has to be the emphasis on spirituality and meditation. The Draags seem to have attained some form of “higher intelligence” since they often practice meditation and their deity is also connected closely to this practice. The hallucinatory nature of the animation seems to reflect this concept of higher orders of strange spirituality being the governing principles of advanced civilisations. 

On the negative side, some of the animation’s nudity and sexual references are a bit superfluous, and the animation may be disturbing and even shocking for the viewers of today. There is some uncomfortable display of violence and even gore since, at one point, the Oms kill a flying creature and not only drink, but also bath in its blood. The traumatic element of the animation also includes the death of Terr’s mother in the story’s beginning, as well as numerous other inhumane practices carried out by the Draags.

Fantastic Planet” may disturb and even shock with its content, but it is also strangely fascinating and thought-provoking. Its odd imagery and music will leave a lasting impression, and, although it is grim, it is also inspiring, probably providing later a lot of inspiration for Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). 9/10 

Le Roi et L'Oiseau PosterThe King & The Mockingbird (Le Roi & L’Oiseau) (1980)

Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away” (2001)) and Isao Takahata (“Only Yesterday” (1991), Japanese directors, once stated that Paul Grimault’s “Le Roi & L’Oiseau” was their inspiration source and a definite influence. In fact, Miyazaki’s first feature “The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979) took some material from “Le Roi & L’Oiseau”. The influence of Grimault is also evident in Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky” (1986). What is “Le Roi & L’Oiseau” all about? The story was initially conceived as “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep”, loosely based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, and was released without approval of the director/scriptwriter in the 1950s. It was only in 1980 that the director finally released his own version. The story is about the solitary, vain King Charles of the Kingdom of Tachycardia, who detests people and who likes hunting. He is in a perpetual war with the talking Bird of the Kingdom who raises his four little children on his own because of the murder of his bird wife, undoubtedly by the hand of the King. It also so happens that the portraits in the King’s private suite in the castle become alive and the Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep, having fallen in love, try to escape the tyranny of the King, who, in turn, set his mind on marrying the beautiful Shepherdess. The great thing about this animation is the way it fuses book story-telling with animation, as well as the inspiring castle architecture and its environs. The characters of the King and the Bird are well-written, and the story is also more ironic and profound than first appears.

king-mockingbird-1980-012-the-city-wide-shotOne of the most admirable features we notice is that, as the Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep make their getaway down the castle stairs to escape the King and his police, the castle itself is a pure marvel to behold with all its “futuristic” technology. Firstly, there is the King’s capsule lift which takes him to his hidden chambers on the 296th floor of the castle. Then, there are Venice-inspired grounds of the castle, which watery roads require special mobile water scooters to use them, not to mention a myriad of other interesting gadgets, such as the King’s button to open up floors and “swallow” undesirable subjects who disobey him. In this wonderful animation, modernity and old times mix, and while we hear subdued melodies of the French Royal Court and wonder at the background Renaissance/Baroque paintings, there is also futuristic technology introduced, such as the giant robot of the King that pursues the Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep as they try to hide among the poor vagabonds of the Kingdom. 

The animation now recalls also the productions of the Soyuzmultfilm, such as “Dyuymovochka” (Thumbelina) (1964), a story also based on the fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In that story, incidentally, there is also the motive of a reluctant marriage. Le Roi & L’Oiseau has a deeply-imbedded message about societal hierarchy and unfairness, but it is probably its characters which remain the most memorable, rather than its theme. For example, the police of the King often find themselves in funny situations as they pursue the escapees, and resemble Thomson and Thompson from the “Adventures of Tintin” series. The King is also very memorable, and now resembles the vain and arrogant Lord Farquaad from “Shrek” (2001), who, incidentally also has some physical defect/abnormality.

Le Roi & L’Oiseau” may be inconsistent in its visual quality, but it is also child-friendly, charming and delightful. Its interesting story boasts great main and side characters, and its animation ideas are awe-inspiring even today. 9/10

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17 Responses to Classic French Animations: “Fantastic Planet” (1973) and “The King & The Mockingbird” (1980)

  1. realthog says:

    I’ve loved La Planete Sauvage ever since I first saw it on the big screen double-billed with a Pink Floyd-soundtracked surfing movie. I’d been dragged along by friends who were Floyd fans, but all of us came out of the cinema yattering about the Laloux movie. (His other two animations, if ever you come across them, aren’t nearly as good.)

    I have to confess I’m less affected by Le Roi & L’Oiseau, but then I’ve only ever seen it on the small screen, and in a lousy DVD print.

  2. I reviewed Fantastic Planet a few weeks ago 🙂 Nice to come across it again.

  3. MIB says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by Fantastic Planet ever since I was a kid and saw a screenshot of it in a book of sci-fi films my dad had. It was only a few years ago I finally got to see it and now have the Blu-ray. It’s definitely a film of its time yet also ahead of its time. Great film.

    Not seen the other film however…. :-/

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      You said it very well about the Planet being ahead of its time, and as for Le Roi & L’Oiseau I just think it is such a shame that such an influential animation – which even influenced the animation genius Miyazaki – is almost unheard of in the English-speaking world.

      • MIB says:

        I’ve just discovered The King & The Mockingbird has been released on DVD over here so I’m going to add it to my Cinema Paradiso rental list! Thanks for the heads up! 🙂

        BTW – have you seen any other French animation like Belleville Rendezvous, The Illusionist, April And The Extraordinary World or Ernest & Celestine?

        • dbmoviesblog says:

          I have seen all you mentioned. I previously uploaded The Illusionist and included April in my list of best animations to see from 2010. Talking about French animations, I have had Kirikou and the Sorceress on my to-see list for ages, but I am not sure if it is any good.

          • dbmoviesblog says:

            Btw, about The King & The Mockingbird. I am not sure whether your version will be dubbed or not or whether something was even reworked. I have seen the animation in French with Spanish subtitles, which I do understand. I am just saying this because from my previous experience I know that some dubbed versions of certain animations end up to be miles away from the quality and “spirit” of the original.

            • realthog says:

              I picked up a DVD of it years ago as one of those 99c jobbies and, as mentioned, the image quality was pretty poor and it was the adulterated version. The Wikipedia entry on the movie says this:

              The film has had poor availability in English (although an English dub exists). While the completed version of the film has not been released on home video in North America, it is available for streaming on Amazon Instant and Vudu. The first English-friendly release was made in October 2013 in the United Kingdom;[1] it was scheduled for wider theatrical release in the UK in 2014,[2] with DVD sales from April 2014.[3] Previously, the film had been often shared by animation fans online. A low-budget English-language release of the 1952 version, dubbed The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird, is in the public domain and available free online. In that version, Peter Ustinov narrates and voices the main role of the bird.

              • dbmoviesblog says:

                Thanks for the info! So, yours could have been from 1952? Well, the 1952 version is definitely not the one I was talking about. I mean I now see Wikipedia too and it says it is 24 minutes shorter than the 1980 version and I do not think that the 1950 version was made as envisaged by the director. So, I guess the post 2010 versions had the “final” 1980 version in mind. Having said that I would have loved to hear Peter Ustinov too 🙂

              • realthog says:

                I think the one I bought was the Ustinov version, but unfortunately I can’t [REDACTED] find it right now to check.

                I may have to try to pick up the UK DVD next time I’m over there.

          • realthog says:

            I have had Kirikou and the Sorceress on my to-see list for ages, but I am not sure if it is any good.

            I thought it was pretty good. I was lucky enough to see a preview of it in NYC in 1999, although I’m reluctant to say it was on the big screen because the screen in question was not that huge. I gather its general release in the US was delayed a couple of years because of — horrified gasp! — nudity.

            I’ve just discovered it had a couple of sequels, neither of which I’ve seen. I’d better do something ’bout that.

  4. equinoxio21 says:

    I think I saw la planète sauvage on its release. Not 100% sure. I’d need to download it.
    Le roi et l’oiseau is a piece of poetry.
    Thank you for your post.

  5. AdhithyaKR says:

    Just watched Fantastic Planet today. Great review and thanks for introducing me to the other movie. It sounds interesting! I’ve written an analysis of Fantastic Planet too where I talk more about the animation style. You might like it. https://letustalkstories.wordpress.com/2018/11/19/fantastic-planet-humans-are-troublesome-pets/

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