For a while, this Czech puppet animation seems like a fusion of First Man and Wallace and Gromit – taking a wry, cynical look at the early days of the Soviet space program as viewed by Laika, the first living creature shot into space. In 1957, Laika became a world-renowed, heroic-cutesy figure … until children asked their parents when she’d be coming home, and the Russian space agency had to admit that she’d been sent on a suicide mission and then got a bit sulky that their massive unprecedented scientific achievement was not receiving all the accolades they expected merely because they killed a dog. This isn’t the first fiction to imagine a happier outcome for Laika and her animal comrades – remember Cosmo the CCCP Space Dog in the margins of Guardians of the Galaxy? – but it is quite probably the strangest. It’s so heroically unsuitable for children that many kids will love it, even if they don’t get all the perverse alien sex jokes.
We meet Laika, a struggling single mother of three pups, as she forages for bones amid the snows of Baikonur, only to be trapped by a pair of cackling knackers and turned over to a couple of clumsy scientists who put her through the familiar rigorous training – a centrifuge, a sudden drop chair, asphyxiation chamber, etc – before her space shot. Cosmonaut Yuri Leftkin, a grotesque idiot, complains that his union resents a flea-bitten mutt getting sent into space before he is, but shuts up about it when he learns the rocket scientists haven’t perfected a way of returning to Earth yet. Before the flight, Laika escapes from her pen and brings her three (rather undercharacterised) puppies along as stowaways. Amusingly, as soon as Laika’s stubby rocket rises through the atmosphere, the Americans shove Ham the happy chimp into a capsule ad shoot him off too – followed by an armada of rockets with a menagerie of cows, turtles, cats, pigs, etc, and eventually Soviet and US manned missions with Yuri and equally cloddish astronaut Neil Knockout.
Passing through a sentient black hole, the rockets all crash-land on a bizarre planet populated by goofy alien beings, including the polyamorous, polymorphous Mr Queerneck (who has weird tentacles including a huge penis, and is compelled to grope and consider copulating with literally any warm body in reach). Despite the kink, the animals enjoy a utopian lifestyle without spoilsport humans … until Yuri and Neil show up, and inflict the horrors of communism (Yuri declares everyone is free and equal and all property should be shared as he steals Ham’s lake of bananas) and capitalism on them all. Bullying Yuri invents a freeze blunderbuss and starts eating the supporting cast – mostly offscreen, but still: imagine Wallace cooking Gromit for supper – and Laika rallies her pals to overthrow the bastards.
Writer-director Aurel Klimt constructs a grotesque human world (the human puppets are swollen-headed, snaggletoothed, snarling, dead-eyed, stumbling monsters) and more appealing, semi-realistic animals. The Baikonur sequences feature rusty, malfunctioning equipment and tons of snow – but the alien world is a strange place with a rubbery, rounded Fleischer Brothers look and lots of hopping, staring, cheerfully weird critters. It’s also a musical, though the songs are fairly grating – even Ham’s happy hymn to unending bananas. There are a lot of decent spot-gags – Yuri’s onboard computer is an abacus worked by metal hands – and Laika herself is an unusual toon heroine.