On Gandahar / Light Years

A Most Fantastic Planet

I’ve long had a somewhat embarrassing soft-spot for traditional animated movies, particularly, to my own chagrin, those with a science-fiction/fantasy setting.  So, I was quite pleased to catch the 1988 film Gandahar this week.

Fig. 1: Just your ordinary, gigantic floating head.

Actually, strictly speaking what I saw was the American version, rescripted by Isaac Asimov and retitled, for reasons inexplicable, Light Years.  The minor edits and changes in the English language version were apparently sufficient for Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein to take the director’s credit away from the French version’s helmsman, Réné Laloux (famous for his 1973 work, Fantastic Planet).  The American version also features an unusually pedigreed voice cast including Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Grey, and … uh … Penn & Teller (yes, Teller actually does have a speaking role).

I won’t go into detail about the plot, but suffice it to say that it involves the typical fantasy trope of a hero’s quest to save his homeland.  However, along the way, it allows for meditations on the nature of technology and knowledge as well as being one of the few films to deal with time travel in an intelligent manner.  In fact, the concern with temporality and cause and effect is one of the central themes of the film, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis rears its head when we meet a group of spectacularly deformed creatures who, having once been blessed with the gift of foresight, fear the present so much that they have excised it from their language speaking only in future and past tenses.

Fig. 2: The Deformed.

From a purely visual perspective, Gandahar is one of the most imaginative, unusual looking films I have seen and illustrates the power of animation when it comes to depicting the fantastic.  Whereas films like Avatar and the Star Wars prequels depict alien worlds and strange creatures in great detail and with much technical sophistication, the fantasy is still presented as if it were real: the computer generated imagery is blended in with the “live-action” footage.  As such, even the most fanciful imagery still measures itself against the yardstick of our ordinary reality; the goal of the process is to make the fantastic seem a part of the real world.

With animation, however, there is no pretense to reality as there is no objective world against which it compares itself.  Animated films are therefore able to present imagery completely detached from any sense of realism.  The depiction of Unicron in the otherwise somewhat-execrable The Transformers: The Movie is good example of this, but Gandahar is even more successful at pushing the bounds of reason.

Fig. 3: Who knew giant pulsating brains could be so phallic?

The viewer is treated to incredible visuals ranging from the Gandahar citadel shaped like a tall, topless woman; a gigantic brain in the middle of the ocean; and all manner of strange devices which may be machines, organisms, or a little of both.  The ambiguity of the Gandaharian technology (it is unclear whether it consists of machines or specially engineered creatures) could only be effectively conveyed through cartoons, which allow the audience to make their own sense of the implausible designs.

Fig. 4: Probably an unpleasant way to go.

Furthermore, the Deformed would degenerate into mere grotesqueness if depicted with live action make-up or CGI, but because they are cartoons, the stylization of the various eyes and mouths in places where eyes and mouths most certainly should not be gives them an unsettling, dream-like quality.

Fig. 5: Still not as weird as Hallucigeneia.

Despite these brilliant visuals designed by the French illustrator, Philippe Caza, the film does suffer from poor animation.  The designs themselves are great, but the movement is somewhat stilted and wooden, and the colours are less than spectacular.

This is probably due in large part to the fact that the film was animated by the North Korean studio SEK Studio, presumably for budget reasons.  Of course, the delicious incongruity of a film dealing with resistance to a totalitarian, collectivist society being made in just such a place would not have been lost on the filmmakers.

Fig. 6: Fortunately, communist regimes have no sense of irony.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on February 6, 2010.

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