A vehicle is speeding across the desert plains of the planet Perdide, trying to escape the plague of hornets that are on its tail. Inside are the stranded little boy Piel (voiced by Frédéric Legros) and his father, who is trying to contact his associate Jaffar (Jean Valmont) in a spaceship some distance away, but suddenly the vehicle is out of the plains and into a forest where it crashes into a tree. Dying, the father lets his son out of the cockpit and gives him a radio device so he can keep in touch with Jaffar and his crew, then tells him to head for cover where the hornets cannot reach...
What begins as a simple rescue mission becomes something more cosmic in René Laloux's science fiction tale, which marked his return to the big screen as director after his cult hit Fantastic Planet. Sadly, Les Maîtres du Temps did not enjoy the same level of success or endurance in the public imagination, and was largely considered a lesser work. This despite the pedigree of having renowned comic book artist Moebius, or Jean Giraud, working on the visuals and being based on a novel by French author Stefan Wul, as Fantastic Planet had been.
All of this is not to say the film is not worthwhile, yet its appearance could easily be seen as pleasingly simplicity or banal oversimplification, depending on your point of view. Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it's just that until that point there's a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy - basically, it looks like a kids' film. This means the allegorical aspects of Laloux's previous work seemed to be missing in this one, and therefore the resonance was diminished.
While there are amusing parts even if considering the film is supposed to be a race against time there's a curious lack of urgency to the story. Although Jaffar and his crew know that Piel is stranded and alone, they opt to stop at a different planet and stay overnight at the lake home of Silbad (Michel Elias), a sixty-year old grandpappy type character who is reminiscent of Captain Haddock from the Tintin books. Everyone takes turns in speaking to Piel, but that includes the wicked Prince Matton (Yves-Marie Maurin), a fugitive with a hoard of stolen treasure who doesn't want some little boy's plight to divert the journey.
There are bits and pieces, even before the finale, which suggest that this was not intended for children after all. The hornets have a habit of eating human brains, the comedy creature Piel makes friends with ends up devoured by a thing in a cave, and there are concepts which could easily sail over the heads of kids. Among the people Jaffar and company meet along the way is a being that enslaves passing travellers on its planet, transforming them into blank-faced angels, an intriguing diversion, but the film is packed with elements such as this which don't work towards a sense of cohesion. However, if you like a story that flits around hither and yon with a plethora of fantastical creations, Les Maîtres du Temps, meaning The Masters of Time (a title whose meaning is clearer by the close), does have a charm and appeal over and above its drawbacks. It weaves a spell if you're indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.