The complicated history of René Laloux's lost feature film

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Drawing by Patrice Sanahujas for à l'Ombre du Dragon
Drawing by Patrice Sanahujas for à l'Ombre du Dragon

In Europe, animation has always been considered the B-grade level of filmmaking, often labelled as childish, superficial and incapable of capturing the world's complexity. In the second half of the twentieth century, artists struggle to find producers who believe in their projects and are willing to grant the budget to create intricate scenes and animations.

In this context, René Laloux’s career is a perfect example of the difficulties these directors face while trying to establish animation as an art form tout court. After the success of his first feature-length film, La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet), which over the years acquires the status of cult movie and gets screened in festivals all around the world, Laloux has the opportunity to create another one, Les Maîtres du temps (Time Masters). But the challenges he faces while making these two films over the span of thirteen years are nothing compared to the obstacles that would come in the near years.

During a Les Maîtres du temps screening in 1983, Laloux meets Serge Brussolo, author of countless fiction works spanning sci-fi, crime, fantasy and thrillers. The two agree to join forces and create a film inspired by one of Brussolo’s novels. Laloux initially suggests Carnaval de Fer, but later on the choice falls on À l’image du dragon, published by Fleuve Noir the year before.

Serge Brussolo, À l’image du dragon, Fleuve Noir, 1982

José Xavier would work on the graphics, a preliminary script is written and Laloux also gives the project a title: Le monde des dieux-nains (The World of the Dwarf Gods).

The Dwarf Gods live on a planet where only two seasons alternate: summer and the rainy season. They, as ingenious as they are distracted, create two peoples unable to coexist in harmony: while the Chameleons hate the heat and transform themselves into statues to resist it, the Hydrophobes cannot stand the rain and take refuge in crystal caves. The former send their dragons to attack the lairs of the latter, who in return send their warriors during the dry season to destroy as many statues as possible. The story centers on the journey of the very young knight Nath and his mute squire Boa, hydrophobic warriors who embark on a campaign against the Chameleons. Nath is enchanted by the statue of a young flautist named Nuth, who will save his life. The two fall in love and give birth to a hybrid child who both endures the rain and can to turn into stone, presaging a future of union of peoples.

Unfortunately, producers don't like the project. But Laloux endures. After some years, he involves his friends Patrice Sanahujas and Raphaël Cluzel, who also has written the script and dialogues for Laloux' third feature film, Gandahar. Sanahujas creates new drawings and brings the Le monde des dieux-nains to life: panoramas, characters studies, portraits and even some key scenes.

Nuth by Patrice Sanahujas
The protagonist Nuth by Patrice Sanahujas

The movie, now called À l’ombre du dragon (In the Shadow of the Dragon), seems to be heading towards the right direction, even so that Gabriel Yared (the soundtrack composer for Gandahar), writes the score for a fifty seconds trailer used for meetings with CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée) producers. Didier Lockwood is in charge of the official movie score. However the project fails to raise sufficient funding. At last, in 1995, Laurence Kilberg writes a new script (À l'ombre des dragons) that convinces Gandahar producer Léon Zuratas to greenlight the film. More than 10 years later, Laloux can finally start to create what will become his fourth feature film. But faith has other plans.

In a matter of just two years, Sanahujas, Cluzel and Roland Topor (the co-creator of Fantastic Planet) pass away. Tired by the unwillingness of the cinema industry to believe in genuine, hand-crafted animated movies, Laloux abandons the project and gives it to Philippe Leclerc, one of his pupils.

The new millennium begins and Leclerc's script, titled Skän, guerrier du soleil (Skän, the Sun Warrior) is a little different from the original one. Nath becomes Skän, Nuth is now Kallisto; the Hydrophobes change name into Pyross, the Chameleons into Hydross. The Dwarf Gods storyline disappears and gets replaced by a distant "Great Sundering". Dragons play a minor role.

Kallisto by Caza
A drawing of Kallisto by Caza

French comic artist Caza, who has previously worked on the graphics for Gandahar, is called by Leclerc to help him finish what the master started. He creates a complete new look for the film, adding his outer-worldy touch to the scenes with rich details, vivid colors and beautiful character designs. Laloux manages to see the completed movie Les Enfants de la pluie (The Rain Children) get released in 2003 before departing on March 15, 2004.