Time Masters (Les maîtres du temps)

France (1982) Dir. René Laloux

Having made the classic animation Fantastic Planet from a novel by French sci-fi author Stefan Wul, unhurried French director René Laloux’s follow up (nine years later) was another Wul adaptation, this time turning his 1958 work L’Orphelin de Perdide into Time Masters.

A six-wheeled vehicle is speeding across the desert terrain of the planet Perdide when it is attacked by bugs and crashes, The driver, Claude, is able to free his young son Piel whilst his wife Anne was already dead. With this last breath, Claude leaves a message via a communicator to his friend Jaffar asking him to collect Piel, leaving the youngster with a egg-shaped communicator so they can stay in touch.

Jaffar receives the message in his space ship Double Triangle 22, but is several systems away, forcing him instead to visit the nearby planet his old friend Silbad resides, who can offer Jaffar help. Along with his two companions, the deposed Prince Metton and Princess Belle, and Silbad, the race to guide Piel to safety is plagued by many distractions from various intergalactic troublemakers.

This film’s title, whether in French or English, is little misleading as the eponymous Time Masters don’t arrive until the very end for the ultimate deus ex machina denouement to a story that frankly was a sprint through a series of adventures with little to no cohesion to them. Not that there aren’t moments of promise of a deeper overarching storyline but they never germinate beyond that seedling state.

Running a very swift 75-minutes, there is no time for backstories or world building here, let alone sufficient introductions for the characters, opening with the vehicle crash with no context as to whom the passengers are and why they are speeding. The deceased Anne is not even seen which I suppose saved the animators some time. To get around this and other such need for explanation, the dialogue is largely expository which is practical for the audience but does nothing to establish any of the personalities.

Funnily enough, young Piel is spared this ignominy since his role is simply to wander from one peril into another, approaching everything with a naivety and callow recklessness commensurate to his age to provide comedy and intermittent danger. As the one innocent of this tale, it is a tragedy Piel has to rely on a motley crew like Jaffar and co. to survive when they are easily caught up in their own troubles.

If anything, Piel has the better deal being in one place and fate often falls on his side while his adult saviours are forced to navigate a number of routes to get to Perdide. The stop over on Silbad’s home planet sees Jaffar and the royal siblings enjoy a relaxing night at Silbad’s sumptuous abode, complete with a swimming pool, which is a bit rich considering a child’s life is in danger, but that is the French for you, moving at their own pace.

One thing that does come out of this are the two homunculi named Yula and Jad, tiny comical alien figures that grew from flowers and do their best to narrate the action whilst having fun. They cause a lot of trouble yet they are the most together characters of the whole lot, offering an insightful perspective to the madness of the events, waxing lyrical about the philosophical meaning behind them as well as proving to be useful in times of need.

Little is shared about the royal siblings, such as where they planet was, why they were  deposed and how they came to join Jaffar, except Metton is the selfish, greedy one who stole a treasure chest before they left. This means the space police, the Intergalactic Reform, are on their tail to reclaim the goods, only this doesn’t become a plot point until late in the film. On the more predictable side, it takes all of five seconds to work out what happens between Belle and Jaffar and yes, you’d be right.

Because Fantastic Planet was such a mordant allegorical work, the expectations for Time Masters to follow suit are naturally high but sadly not met. The closest we get is when Team Jaffar are forced to land on Gamma 10 after Metton tries to escape, only to be captured by a race of faceless winged humanoids whose leader decrees everyone should become one with his amorphous form, thus losing their individuality.

With the source novel being written in 1958, this could have easily been a retort to the rise of communism in many European countries and worthy of being the sole premise for this tale, yet it’s a briskly covered chapter out of many that is only really functional in setting up the next stage of the journey. For a story crying out for some substance, this could have been it but it is not to be, so enjoy it while you can.

For me, the disjointed screenplay, clunky dialogue and absent character development are the biggest drawbacks of this film; for others it is the subpar animation. René Laloux once again brought artist Mœbius on board but the results are mixed – the backgrounds are fabulously detailed and whimsical but the characters are one dimensional cartoon figures lifted from late 70’s Hanna-Barbera.

Their movements are stilted, the faces half drawn and show no emotion. Even the aliens on Perdide, mostly hybrids of two or more animals or insects, are loosely drawn and comic like, which is just as well as most of them befriend young Piel rather than hurt him. The spacecraft look fine but again suffer from being roughly animated, dating the production to before the early 80’s.

Yet, Time Masters is a film that is difficult to dislike for all its niggles which I am sure others won’t let spoil it for them. It’s a curio lost in the shadow of its predecessor but oddly enigmatic because of being so unfocused and unruly. Ridiculous but great fun.