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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Fantastic Planet: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Fantastic Planet: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // PG // June 21, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author

It's fairly obscure outside of animation circles, but that doesn't mean René Laloux's Fantastic Planet (AKA La Planète Sauvage, or "The Savage Planet") isn't worth a look. This oddly compelling 1973 animated effort has certainly aged in some regards, though its creative visuals, universal story, and disturbing characters remain just as accessible and repulsive as ever. Those who like their sci-fi slow-cooked have come to the right place; everyone else, however, may feel more than a bit estranged by what unfolds in just 73 minutes. Translation: it's pretty trippy.

Our story revolves around the human-like Om people and their strange relationship with the Draags, a race of giant blue creatures who inexplicably speak perfect French (or English, depending on your dub preference). These curious beings have mixed feelings about the smaller Oms: most adult Draags regard them as vermin, but the younger creatures enjoy keeping them as pets. Careless play sessions often injure or humiliate the Oms, whether their large owners are batting them around or pitting their pets against one another. It's established early on that this one-sided relationship is akin to a selfish child toying with ants or teasing a small kitten; though some Draags mean well, their relationship is closer to a master-slave relationship than anything else. It's appropriate, then, that this one-sided relationship doesn't last very long: soon enough, Fantastic Planet transitions into a tale of revolt, rebellion, violence and attempted escape, armed with a strong sociopolitical message that's easy to interpret but difficult to forget.

The storybook stop-motion animation is perhaps the most striking aspect of Fantastic Planet, which resembles Terry Gilliam's work for Monty Python with a stiff but striking cut-and-paste appearance that's punctuated by bold hatching strokes. Conceived and designed by late French surrealist illustrator Roland Topor (who co-wrote the film with Laloux), the handcrafted visuals are as important to the film's legacy as much as its story. They're paired with Alain Goraguer's original score, a pure product of the 1970s; though his music cues show their age during several sequences, this often adds to the film's densely disarming atmosphere. The end result looks and sounds vibrant but moves quite slowly, creating an experience that will keep most new viewers off-balance. Those who stick with Fantastic Planet should have no problem appreciating the film's forward-thinking message and singular construction.

Originally released on Region 1 by Anchor Bay and internationally by Masters of Cinema (who later released a Blu-ray, although I haven't seen it), Fantastic Planet gets more domestic attention via Criterion's new Blu-ray. Although the new 2K restoration isn't a slam-dunk like I hoped, the obvious improvements in audio and bonus features make this a well-rounded effort worth owning for established fans of this cult classic. Either way, Criterion's finally getting on board with more animation following their release of Watership Down last year, and that's always a good thing.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Fantastic Planet is...well, pretty darn blue. Every previous version of Fantastic Planet I've seen thus far (including older DVDs by Anchor Bay and Masters of Cinema) has displayed a warmer, earth-toned palette; that's not uncommon in home video, but the extent to which this Blu-ray leans on colder colors just doesn't feel right at times...especially since it's fairly inconsistent. Perhaps the older DVDs were incorrect and we've just gotten used to them, but it still takes quite a bit of visual adjustment if you've seen Fantastic Planet more than a few times before. Otherwise, this new 2K restoration (provided by France's Argos Films) is head and shoulders above previous versions: fine detail and textures are very much improved, with no flagrant digital imperfections and a terrific "in-motion" appearance that really amplifies the film's unique style. Black levels and contrast are also deep and well-balanced, with no obvious signs of black crush or boosting.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

Criterion's Blu-ray serves up two 1.0 tracks: the original French (PCM) or an English dub (Dolby Digital), which sound quite different in more ways than expected. The French track is mixed lower in both volume and frequency with a stronger emphasis on Alain Goraguer's original score, and it also defaults to a split two-channel track even though my player didn't identify it as such (the English dub, on the other hand, is more treble-heavy in direct comparison and correctly placed in the front channel). It's also interesting to note a number of script differences via the optional English subtitles which correctly translate the original French dialogue; in comparison, the English script is slightly more verbose and, combined with the Draag's more robotic delivery, creates a much different experience.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc set is packaged in their typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with colorful artwork that pays tribute to one of the film's most recognizable scenes. The accompanying poster-style Insert features technical specs, credits, and an essay by film critic Michael Brooke.

Bonus Features

A few items of interest here; some might be familiar to DVD owners, and some are new. A pair of Short Films, Les temps morts (1965, 9:46) and Les escargots (1966, 11:15), mark two earlier collaborations between Laloux and Topor. The first is a curious black-and-white mixture of live action and drawings---some of which have been lightly animated---and is often as dark and morbid as its title implies. The second, a story about a farmer whose depleted crop is revived by his own tears, is presented in full color and a bit closer in style and structure to the main feature.

The supplements continue with Laloux sauvage (26:16), a 2010 French-language profile of the late director that was overseen by filmmaker Florence Dauman (who incidentally assisted with its recent restoration). Two other items pay tribute to illustrator and co-writer Roland Topor: a lengthy and playful 1974 episode of the French television program Italiques (53:51), as well as a shorter Interview Segment (3:24) with the artist conducted a year earlier. Topor is extremely candid and honest during both; among other topics, we explore his background, philosophy, and family life. Finally, we get the film's original Trailer (2:17) prefaced by a short list of awards and nominations.

Final Thoughts

Fantastic Planet, though vivid and almost entirely alien at first glance, offers the slower-paced exploration of a world that's meant to mimic our own in some respects. Co-written by director René Laloux and surrealist illustrator Roland Topor, it's every bit as psychedelic and off-balance as its stylized appearance suggests...but this film is still destined to polarize audiences, and that's exactly why it's worth a look if you haven't seen it already. Criterion's Blu-ray represents a solid upgrade from previous home video versions: I can't say that I'm completely on board with the cold tint of this new 2K restoration, but the upgrade in clarity and texture is obvious (the lossless audio and new/vintage supplements don't hurt, either). New fans should rent this one instead of making a blind buy, while those familiar with Fantastic Planet's unique charms should enjoy most of what this disc has to offer. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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