Stop Motion Animation Retrospective: Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Fantastic Planet


The TIFF Bell Lightbox’s stop motion animation retrospective continues this extended holiday weekend with several more impressive titles. Of particular note are screenings of the two 1970s European classics, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage).

Both films pose numerous questions about existence in two completely different tones. Life of Brian, as with all of Monty Python’s greatest works, looks at the world satirically. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious in its absurdities – an elite comedy in which the actors deliver jokes with tremendous control. The jokes are structured so well that they feel as if they appear out of nowhere. All of a sudden, each line becomes funnier than the next. The characters fidget oddly, contort their faces, hold their gazes for a split second too long, and speak with bizarre cadences tones or impediments. Then, at the utmost perfect time, the punch line is dropped and a laughing fit ensues. The Python guys are so good at telling jokes that the plot line is almost unnecessary to the film’s enjoyment. Life of Brian becomes a competition of witty jokester one-ups-man-ship from the opening credits all the way to the closing song.

It’s important to note that these are not all cheap laughs. While it’s easy to laugh at Michael Palin’s portrayal of the lispy Pontius Pilate, it’s the more nuanced humour that lingers the longest. Most brilliant are the scenes featuring the religious disciples. They act as pretentious academics who have factioned off as petty revolutionary groups fighting for the freedom of Judea. John Cleese leads the group discussions about “the struggle against oppression… or reality.” Their discussions poke great fun at the pseudo revolutionaries and academics throughout time. And, while the film is set around the Crucifixion of Christ, the parody is equally applicable to human behaviour some 2000 years later. Life of Brian questions whether religion can be taken at face value and how life is more complicated than scripture.

There’s no doubt that this is an important film, however, to call it an essential work in the development of stop-motion animation might be a stretch. While fashioned by the legendary Terry Gilliam (who conceded directorial duties to Terry Jones), there are only a couple of brief animated sequences, one of them being the credits. The style is assured, but is easily overshadowed by the non-animated scenes that take up the majority of the film’s runtime.

Fantastic Planet, on the other hand, is a full-on animated world unto-itself. And while it also asks the important existential questions of mankind, it does so in haunting humourless allegory. On a far off planet, humans are called Oms and ruled by a master blue alien race known as Traags. Some Oms are kept as domesticated pets, while the rest of the Oms live beyond a concrete wall, untamed.

The film’s greatest success is the unrelenting atmosphere it sets – one that continues to influence popular culture. The funky spaced-out soundtrack has been sampled by modern music producers on a number of different occasions and envelops the viewer in a far out galaxy.

Additionally, the stop-motion animation using paper cutouts is undoubtedly inventive. The Traags have reappeared on countless graffiti walls all over the world. Each object and subject in Fantastic Planet changes shape and dissolves with a supernatural fluidity. The Traags’ red eyes pop out of their heads and turn into metallic spheres.

The narrative tends to stagger a bit in the second half as the Traags and Oms wage war on one another. The director, René Laloux is more concerned with pushing the major plot points forward than examining the tensions caused by organized society. But, it is an important film in representing the struggle humans have faced since their inception on earth. And it is clear that there is both Om and Traag in every human being– a dual motive to rise against the dominant society and then, once achieved, control it.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday, December 24th at 6:30 pm. Purchase tickets here.

Fantastic Planet screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, December 26th at 6 pm. Purchase tickets here.

Click here for a full schedule of the Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation retrospective.

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