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‘Light Years’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1988

Rene Laloux's 1972 cult film "The Fantastic Planet" was an intriguing addition to the slim field of science-fiction animation, and his new offering, "Light Years," is another. All animation is fantasy unbound by limitations, a theater of true possibilities, but it seldom has the visionary underpinning evident in Laloux's work -- certainly not in the genre of animated features, where everyone seems to follow the storytelling footsteps of Walt Disney (even when, like Ralph Bakshi, they stumble on the esthetics).

Not that Laloux isn't a storyteller: "Light Years," Isaac Asimov's American adaptation of the original French film, is a delightful middle ground between adult sci-fi and children's fable. In some distant future, the humankind on planet Gandahar has seemingly restored the Garden of Eden to working order, opting for the organic, the serene and the innocently sensual (most of the women are topless and unashamed). Science has produced a symbiosis of animals and machines, allowing humans to explore something along the lines of a 40-minute work week.

Suddenly, people in the outlying regions start turning to stone and a mysterious force seems to be gaining power and control over the land. Queen Ambisextra sends her son Sylvain to investigate and he slowly uncovers the sins of the past come home to roost. In their search for a new Paradise, the Gandaharians had resorted to genetic engineering, and their experiments-gone-awry are now reappearing in various forms.

There are the Deformed, those botched experiments exiled to the desert, so terrified of their present that they speak in an unsettling mix of past and future tenses. Philippe Caza's visual representations of these genetic mutants are at once disturbing and poignant. It is their prophecy that is the heart and mystery of the film: "In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed and all its people massacred. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved and the inevitable avoided."

There's also the Metamorphosis, the enigmatic enemy torn (at least for a while) between its positive impulses and its destructive desires. There are the cold, mindless Men of Metal who can only obey and destroy. And there are mirror birds, a Door of Time, the Circumscribing Ocean, the Great Beginning ...

The animation itself is somewhat stiff (production costs, most likely), but the illustration is terrific, richly detailed and vibrant, like pages of Heavy Metal magazine rippling with invention. The notions of scientific responsibility and moral revenge, civilizations destroyed and reborn, battles between individuality and collective being, are hardly new to science fiction or to sci-fi films, but they have seldom been explored so poetically. That may be why everyone speaks so softly -- at times "Light Years" sounds like a radio confessional -- and why the major voices (Christopher Plummer, Glenn Close, Jennifer Grey and John Shea) don't sound as familiar as we might expect. But the film is not what we expect from animation, either, and that's a delightful surprise.

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