For nearly as long as the art form has existed, animated films have struggled to build a strong and reliable adult audience. Oftentimes it would seem as though in order for an animation to be widely successful, themes ought to be somewhat tame and stories must be fairly frivolous. However, these principles never seemed to influence the French animator, René Laloux, who became known as a pioneer of science fiction cinema and of adult animation.
Laloux’s first film, Les dents du singe (The Monkey’s Teeth, 1960) became infamous for it’s brutal depiction of a primate removing the teeth of a dentist. The surrealist short was made with the help of patients from the local mental clinic in Cour-Cheverny, France, which could explain it’s bizarre nature. The film is not worried about hiding this fact, and dedicates 3 minutes up-front to a live action segment where the residents of the clinic are shown drawing ideas for the animation which follows. The film is animated using crude cutout puppets, and while it doesn’t demonstrate technically high-quality animation, it still generates interest from the morbid nature of what is depicted, and the understanding of where the ideas are coming from.
Les dents du singe allowed Laloux to break into the animation industry with a reputation of being at the forefront of avant-garde cinema. This gave him the opportunity to finance further short films, the most notable of which being Les Escargots (The Snails, 1965). Here, a farmer devises a way to grow exceptionally large vegetables at the cost of unknowingly unleashing a band of colossal, destructive snails. This short was a collaboration with the author and painter, Roland Topor, who is known for his surrealistic, sex-driven style. Topor’s aesthetics made a significant impact on this film, appearing in everything from the multiple instances of nudity, down to the frequent usage of hatching techniques over painted set pieces. Compared with Les dents du singe, Les Escargots boasts significantly more refined paintings from Laloux, as well as a far more structured plot (although it is still extremely fluid when compared to average cinema.) Les Escargots was a massive success in European film festivals, and managed to win several critical awards.
Soon after, Laloux began work on what would become the most significant film of his career, La Planete Sauvage (The Fantastic Planet, 1973), based on the novel Oms en Serie by Stefan Wul. It is a story about a group of human-like creatures known as Oms who struggle for survival against the gigantic race of blue beings known as the Draags. La Planete Sauvage was coproduced over 3 years between France and Czechoslovakia, at times being animated in the Prague studio of Jiri Trnka. Work on the film was slowed for a variety of reasons, one of which being the recent invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet Russia. Due to the nationalistic feelings of the time, Laloux was nearly kicked off of the project to be replaced by Josef Kabrt, considering how he was the only one working in Prague who was not of Czech heritage. Even though Laloux managed to maintain his position on the film, pressure from the new Soviet-backed government forced the film to be finished in France. Soviet opposition to this film appeared because La Planete Sauvage can be viewed as a political commentary when the oppressive Draags are replaced with the Soviet regime.
This movie was a major achievement for Laloux, and it received great critical praise for it’s surrealistic imagery and striking animation style. The height of which being a scene in which the Draags enter their meditation state, and their bodies transform into colorful liquid masses, which twist and turn with hallucinogenic grace. La Planete Sauvage won multiple international awards, including the Critic’s Choice Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Much like his previous films, it was animated using stop-motion cutouts, however the technique is better refined this time around. The drawings are quite detailed, and motions are very precise if not slightly restrained. Laloux’s films often deal with the bizarre, and this one is no exception. Beyond the unsettling plot laid out by Stefan Wul, Laloux and his production designer Topor bring fantastic scenery that often carries sexual undertones. As well, after a quick glance at the flora and fauna on the planet Ygam, one can easily recognize the forms of human organs, warped into highly intricate entities of their own. Furthermore, La Planete Sauvage should be noted as being one of the first animated films that was intended as being for adults, due to the somewhat sexual and oftentimes brutal content involved.
Laloux followed up this momentum with the release of the 1981 film, Les Maitres du Temps (The Time Masters.) Based upon another Stefan Wul novel, L’Orphelin de Perdide, it is about an interplanetary mission to rescue a young boy named Piel from a world inhabited by giant locusts. This film was traditionally animated in Hungary, while the visual style was a fusion of the works of the French comic artist, Moebius, mixed with Laloux’s science fiction sensibilities. The animation quality is fairly uneven here, wherein some scenes display very dynamic motion, while others fail to impress, boasting static, limited characters. It is also a lot lighter than previous Laloux films as far as sex and violence is concerned, however this does not mean it is ‘just for kids’ either. The film deals with hard-hitting issues such as religion and how exactly one should raise a child. Les Maitres du Temps found modest critical success, but it pales in comparison to the impact La Planete Sauvage made.
Seven years later, René Laloux released his 3rd and final animated feature, Gandahar, based on the novel ‘Les Hommes-machines contra Gandahar’ by Jean-Pierre Andrevon. This science-fiction tale concerns itself with the residents of the planet Gandahar who find themselves under attack from a giant brain called Metamorphosis. This film was traditionally animated, much like Les Maitres du Temps, although here the quality of motion is consistently impressive. Many of the characters in the film are mistakes of genetic engineering, which allows for some very creative designs wherein limbs are either missing, or growing abnormally in a mildly grotesque fashion. In typical Laloux fashion, female nudity is not hidden, furthering the notion that he is interested in providing animation for an adult audience. Soon after, Miramax created a version of Gandahar for distribution in the US entitled, ‘Light Years.’ This rendition had the science fiction author Isaac Asimov rewriting the screenplay, however the final product was both a critical as well as a commercial flop, as compared to the relative success of the French version.
After Gandahar, Laloux stopped working in animation, and only managed to write the screenplay for the 1998 short ‘The Eye of the Wolf’ before dying of a heart attack in 2004. Despite struggling to find quite the same level of sensation as La Planete Sauvage in his later years, Rene Laloux’s impact on animated cinema is substantial nonetheless. His films worked to change the general perception that animation is a medium that exclusively exists to entertain children. He was able to depict bizarre planets with unsettling and sometimes macabre narratives, and continues to inspire with his graceful storytelling.
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