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Writer and director: René Laloux
review by Paul Higson
One Sunday in the 1970s, my family followed up a Sunday morning picking blackberries with cinema visit. I and my sister quite young, so we were looking for a family film. The only double-bill on offer at the Studio 1-4 bore the promising titles of Crystal Voyager and Fantastic Planet. Crystal Voyager was a feature-length surfing documentary while Fantastic Planet proved to be a whole lot of weird. In the film, little people became food for giant anteaters, and headless couples slow danced as gramophones played. Both films spoke of tripped out counter-cultures and, next to the pagan burning my parents took me to, it was possibly the strangest of accidental outings of what was modelled as a conventional pre-teenage.
What I didn't mention while we decided which film to see was that I had caught one of my first editions of Barry Norman's Film ('77?) show, screened then on BBC2, and seen the animation film previewed. I went on with my young life and my oddball fascinations. Meanwhile in France, director René Laloux, the director of Fantastic Planet (aka: La Planeta Sauvage), had moved on to his next project an adaptation of Jean-Pierre Andrevon's Les hommes-machines contra Gandahar. Laloux ran off a pilot running a dozen minutes or so with Metal Hurlant illustrator Philippe Caza's assistance but the film was put on hold. Gandahar would be refinanced and completed in 1987 at the North Korean animation studio S.E.K. de Pyong-Yang, overseen by Laloux and Caza, and Kim Kwang Seung.
According to the accompanying booklet when returning to the project, Laloux was initially confused as to what had originally attracted him to the idea of adapting the original work, and it is hardly promising when he realises it was nothing more than a scene in which the love interests meet when trapped in an ovoid prison. He appears to quickly compensate himself by chucking in other areas of interest but a project that will take several years to realise should have healthier grounds for its origination.
The story breaks down as a war between two societies in a bio-morphic landscape, a power from the future destroying the past, feeding off the carbon life forms that went before. We suspect it should ultimately end in failure for the dark power, as something has to sustain it through the present and until that distant time in the future. A third race of deformed telepaths will join forces with the hero, several of whom will be awaiting him in the future when he passes through a portal of the dark powers creation. Your hero is Sylvain, his love interest is tribe girl Airelle, the nominal leader of his people is the curvaceous Ambisextra who resides in the city of Jasper and the front-man of the helpful mutants is Shayo, that, coupled with the synopsis, is virtually all the short order menu you need to know for now.
Though strange, Gandahar is not outrightly surreal. The move of the production into the 1980s brought with it a deliberate decision not to bring forward the hippie trippy factor which played a part of both the 1969 novel and Laloux's 1970s' style. The result is an adventure that is more earthed than the predecessor film and less appealing for that, the surreal residue becoming more of a betrayal. By 1987 it would have been difficult for the film to impact on viewers, young ones in particular, when the quality of this animation and its universe by then, in truth, differed so slightly from contemporaries like those of He-Man: Masters Of The Universe. It is a huge endeavour for a film to behave so whimsically and ultimately to strategically harmless ends.
The animation style is still distinctive, the people, subtly moving, almost polite. Even in battle they are little more motivated. The colours are pastel beautiful, the landscape textured, dappled, peppered, mottled. The music of Gabriel Yared yearns to take the adventure back to the earlier abandonment in sci-fi fantasy. The visual treatment, alas, is steadfastly self-absorbed, and vagaries persist. The imagination runs out and the animators become impatient. The deformed have facial and body parts missing or popping up everywhere and they look rushed and awkward. Exposed breasts, brief sex and crafty genital simulacra in the appearance of landscape and creatures expose an appeal to the mature audience, though presented in a manner that should not deny the film a family audience, certainly not in France.
This however only places more of an onus on the film to provide more that is mentally stimulating. There are some interesting ideas in the story, though most were already overly familiar in sci-fi by then, and it comes across as half-baked. Often the dialogue is overly trite and certainly in translation can be painful: "The past future has become the way of speaking and believing." Almost as if in apology the disc includes a 1988 short by Laloux and Caza called La Prisonniere which revels in that absconded surrealism, inexplicable and yet with a sense of humour. It is a retelling of the essential Trojan dirty trick, with a bearded whale replacing the wooden horse, a siren inside, freeing herself in the night to open the gates that will drown the desert keep in the ocean's waves. It doesn't call on us to explain it, just to enjoy it, the idea lost between Fantastic Planet and Gandahar.
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