Time Masters

Year: 1982
Production Co: Télécip
Director: René Laloux
Writer: Stefan Wul/René Laloux/Jean Giraud/Jean-Patrick Manchette

Of all the long shots film producers take with content, you can't imagine a less marketable concept than a French/Hungarian animated space adventure that's not only in French but closer in tone to Fantastic Planet than Star Wars.

Sure it was the sci-fi era, with Lucas and Spielberg the new titans of Hollywood, but even if Western audiences would have embraced a foreign language movie in 1982 (I don't think we would have), most would have sat through it scratching their heads trying to figure out the psychedelic visuals and waiting for Imperial stormtroopers or the Millennium Falcon to show up.

It's also telling that I compared it to Fantastic Planet above Рbefore I did so I had no idea Time Masters was also directed by Ren̩ Laloux. And like his even more avant garde 1973 opus, the visual design here was inspired by the work of Jean Giraud, aka Moebius (he of the impossible strip).

Claude is driving an insect-like vehicle across the sands of the planet Perdide. Apparently one of two survivors of a cataclysmic accident, he's also transporting his young son Piel. But when Claude and Piel's car crashes at the edge of an alien forest and Claude is injured, he knows he has to think of a way of sheltering Piel until help arrives.

He calls his friend Jaffar, captain of a ship somewhere across space, and asks him to hurry to Perdide to save his boy from the horrors he might meet – including the race of giant stinging hornets. He hands the transmitter to the boy, telling him it's a friend called Mike who'll keep him company, and sends him off to go and hide in the forest.

Meanwhile Jaffar is transporting two passengers, Prince Matton and his sister Princess Belle, on the way to fund a return to their throne using a cache of jewels. Belle is sympathetic and helpful to Jaffar but Matton is selfish, impatient and deceitful, wanting only to return to power.

But Jaffar has no choice but to bring the ship into the slipstream of the great Blue Comet, using its wash to hurry towards Perdide to save Piel. On the way, they stop at the planet home of his old friend Silbad because of the latter's experience living on Perdide and avoiding its dangers. They also unwittingly pick up two other passengers, tiny floating creatures who are born from the blooming of a gigantic floral life form that lives on the watery surface of Silbad's planet.

Meanwhile everyone's in contact with little Piel through the transmitter, trying to school him in how to find food, protect himself and stay alive long enough for them to reach him, and everyone meets an array of visually fascinating creatures (both friendly and terrifying), places and adventures on their respective paths.

The story is solid enough to follow and Laloux is as thankfully concerned with plot as he is with visuals, possibly because of the source material being a 1958 novel. But there are so many incredibly creative flourishes it gives the film a charm aeons away from the newly minted sci-fi/adventure blockbuster ethos being cemented in Hollywood at the same time.

In just one example, the two creatures from the giant flower, Yula and Jad, are like little Rosencrantz and Guildensterns or Jiminy Crickets, squabbling and chattering to themselves as they try to figure their shipmates out, operating at the edge of the story and not given a second thought by the rest of the crew. They'll also have a far greater impact on the other characters than anyone realises, able to 'smell' human intent and thought because of their natural clairvoyance.

And just like in Fantastic Planet, the (entirely hand-drawn) visuals are at times jaw-dropping, conveying a sense of scope and breadth even live action was struggling with at the time in the pre CGI age. Watch it for no other reason than to remind yourself that were other aesthetics in the genre besides ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and The Empire Strikes Back at the time.

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