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Review: Watch This - Time Masters (1982)

Review: Watch This - Time Masters (1982)

Directed by René Laloux - Distributed by Image Entertainment, Cert. PG (?)

René Laloux and his team were making an animated film called Fantastic Planet (1973) in Czechoslovakia.  It was based on a contentious novel; free-will, personal moralities and beliefs, the rights to information and not be constantly observed and how freedom can come from education are strong themes.  And perhaps not things to be making a film about in early 70's Czechoslovakia.  

Aware they were being monitored and afraid of arrest the animators decamped to France where they finished the film and it was a huge hit.

Does the woman on the trailer sound high to you?

France was the home of Heavy Metal, the fantastical anti-establishment comicbook, which was home to one of the greatest artists of the time, Moebius - whose influence extends today not just in media but to things such as architecture and regular objects now around your house.  It was perhaps fate that the two men would end up working together - many of the designs seen in their film are instantly recognizable as belonging to him.  While the peculiar animation style of Fantastic Planet (almost looking like each frame has been created separately with pastels and watercolours) has gone the environments and the universe here are incredibly impressive, while character design is basic and movement minimal.  It's a product of it's time - but you don't feel like you need to make allowances for these things as the story, themes, people and places are so rich you stop seeing the lack of polish.

I first saw this film when I was around 10 years old.  I was ill and sick off from school and the BBC needed to fill an hour or two in the afternoon and they decided to put this cartoon on after the afternoon news.  While researching for this article I discovered that the BBC had actually part-financed the film. Having done so I'm not altogether sure they knew what it was or what to do with it (which finally accounts for the weird scheduling).  This explains the (excellent) English voice cast and why I instantly knew the voice of Jaffar - he's played in the dubbed version by Ray Brooks.  I, of course, didn't know the actor but he was famous for being the voice of a popular UK kids cartoon, Mr. Benn.  

The BBC then, found themselves with an incredibly strange animated film that - really - isn't for children.  But it was safe programming for a weekday afternoon - because it was an animation. Right? 


This trailer makes the film look far darker than it is, though it certainly does have its moments.

I'd wondered in the past whether my attachment to this film is due to when I saw it - I was near the same age as the boy in the film, Piel.  However, a couple of years ago I lent a stack of films to a friend of mine - this film being one of them - and it didn't occur to me to draw his attention to it; it was just one film of many.

A few weeks later he couldn't stop talking about it; it had blown his mind.

Piel and his father are travelling in the far reaches of the universe.  Driving an enclosed dune-buggy on some alien planet Piel's father makes a call for help to his friend Jaffar who is some distance away.  Space travel is comparatively slow, but the technology for instant voice communication across vast distances exists; he appeals for help.  Details are sketchy - they're being attacked, his wife is dead.

He crashes the vehicle.  Mortally wounded and unable to push himself free from the wreckage he gives the communicator to Piel, tells him to find somewhere to hide, and wait for help.  Piel is reluctant to venture into the alien forest alone and his father resorts to repeatedly firing his pistol at the boys' feet to make him run.  Clutching the communicator, a large metal egg-shaped device, he walks on into the unknown.

Piel with "Mike"

When Jaffar starts talking to Piel the boy assumes the device is some sort of person in its' own right.  Jaffar plays along rather than try and explain the device and confuse the child - instead he calls himself "Mike" (as in microphone) and does his best to reassure the boy while he attempts to get to him.

Jaffar isn't alone; he's transporting a brother and sister, Prince Matton and Princess Belle - both former royalty - to their homeworld where Matton intends to reclaim his throne.  The Prince is not happy at making a detour.

L to R: Princess Belle, Jaffar and the brattish Prince Matton

Piel encounters one of the few friendly creatures on the planet, a goofy-looking kangaroo type animal who initially seems fascinated with "Mike" and takes it from Piel, though it eventually takes an interest in Piel himself and leads him through the alien world.

It's an extraordinary film - there's enough in the trailer to show you that you're in for something very very different.  Ultimately it's about hope, selflessness, selfishness, and - in basic terms - karma.  Putting this child's needs before their own leads our heroes (Jaffar acquires an interesting crew as the film progresses) to a truly unimaginable place.  

The Prince tries to trick Piel into swimming in a body of water the child finds - knowing full-well it most likely contains all manner of vicious creatures.  If the boy is dead they can resume the trip to his planet.  He's discovered before his plan can work and abandons ship in a shuttle, pursued by Jaffar.  The two men find themselves on the only planet in range - a sinister world inhabited by a race of hive-mind entities intent on absorbing the two of them...

It's haunting, and the ending is an emotional sucker-punch you'll never see coming.  

Find a copy; watch it.

Chris Coates

All images copyright of their respective owners in their many many territories
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