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Great effects take this only halfway toward being sophisticated science fiction instead of familiar family fare.
By Steve Biodrowski
June 15, 2000
Animation in the U.S., especially feature-film animation, has too often been relegated to family fare, so it's nice to see Fox Animation trying something a little different with TITAN A.E., which aims to be a sort of young adult alternative to the familiar fairy tale approach, emphasizing science fiction, action adventure, and contemporary music, instead of mermaids, talking animals, and Broadway-style show tunes. Unfortunately, like Disney's DINOSAUR, this film only goes halfway toward breaking out of the familiar mold, using CGI and a cyberpunk look to dress up what is essentially a straight-ahead, old-fashioned, uplifting story that won't scare away any moms bringing their kids to the theatres.
The film combines traditional hand-drawn cel work for the major characters with computer-generated imagery for the spaceships and the alien menace. The visual scheme is almost symptomatic of the film's schizophrenic nature, combining traditional, Disney-esque elements that will appeal to a family-oriented audience (meaning parents and young children), while at time delivering lots of high-tech action that should appeal to teenagers. The result is an often awkward mish-mash, filled with exciting sequences and great special effects that are interrupted by uninvolving dialogue scenes. The occasional expletive and the hints of sexual innuendo just aren't enough to make these familiar types grow up into full realized characters.
The first sign of trouble is the lead, Cale, first seen as a blond moppet being abandoned by his Dad (who has to oversee the Titan project) just before Earth is blown to pieces by alien invaders known as the Drej. The scene is meant to lock in our empathy, but the parental abandonment theme is stale (think BAMBI and director Don Bluth's own THE LAND BEFORE TIME), and Cale is just too generic a figure; when we next see him (grown up) he's even worse, having become a selfish knucklehead who's more angst-ridden about his father's leaving him than he is about the Earth having been destroyed.
Rather perplexingly, although the character's blond-haired looks and his stature as the protagonist suggest a Luke Skywalker type of role, his personality is derived more from Han Solo, and the combination just doesn't work. It was funny that Solo wasn't interested in Princess Leia's revolution in STAR WARS, because it was contrasted with Luke's enthusiasm, but Cale's reluctance simply slows down the narrative, forcing the other characters to drag him along for most of the story until he finally gets with it.
Cale's self-centered nature leads to deeper thematic problems. This film is, after all, about a wandering people, reduced to being second-class citizens wherever they go because they have no homeland of their own. The Biblical parallels, with the Jews' search for a homeland, is obvious, so why, then, is Cale made to look as if he could be a member of the Ayrian Nation? Perhaps this would fly if we were meant to read it as a 'shoe on the other foot' situation, but that's not how it's presented.
Cale obviously thinks of himself as entitled to cut to the front of the line, ahead of other simply because they are 'alien' (of course, in the situation, he's really the alien, but that's not the way the film views it). When he's forced to wait his turn like everybody else, we're supposed to feel resentment on his behalf, and the feeling we're left with is that some natural, destined form of entitlement has been violated. Basically, if you're blond and white, dammit, you should be at the front of the line, and if you're not, then something is woefully out of whack with the entire universe.
Of course, the film throws in some ethnic characters to disguise this questionable theme. In particular, there's Akima, who's fills the dual role of being both a woman and a minority. But she's just a generic tough-girl cliché (a cross somewhere between Disney's Mulan and Pocahontas), and it's still out blond hero who will have to save humanity.
This line of development reaches its low point in what is, ironically, one of the most exciting scenes: after receiving a clue as to the whereabouts of the Titan project (which is capable of creating a replacement Earth), Cale and company are attacked by the Drej and saved by an alien race called the Ghouls. These flying, bat-winged creatures maneuver and dive like fighter planes, lifting our helpless heroes to safety. Along the way, many are killed, but as each one is blasted out of the air, another swoops down to save the falling humans from certain death.
And when the humans finally get back to their ship, how do they thank their comrades in adversity? Well, they don't. Not a word is spoken, not a tear shed for those who died to save them; in fact, the Ghouls are not so much as mentioned for the rest of the film. Thus, what should have been a tremendous dramatic turning point is rendered instead as a throw-away action set piece. Even worse, it takes the old racist clichés of past Hollywood abominations and gives them a new, science fiction face. Think GUNGA DIN; think BIRTH OF A NATION; or think of dozens of jungle melodramas: the bad minorities are the ones trying to kill the white people; the good minorities are the one's who selflessly sacrifice themselves so that their white masters can live.
It goes without saying that the Ghouls can't be the leads of the movie (got to make it easy for viewers to identify with the protagonists), but this wouldn't hurt as much if they didn't outshine the lead characters. In fact, rather like old Disney films in which the heroes were often too bland by half, the supporting cast outshines the nominal leads at every turn.
If you can get past the problems with story and characterization, there are quite a few visual delights waiting for you. The 'wake angels' (space creatures that accompany space ships, much as dolphins will do with sea-going vessels) manages a certain beautiful poetry, and the finale even works up some decent suspense as two ships try to out maneuver each other in a field of ice crystals, reflection upon reflection obscuring the real vessels, much like the final showdown in ENTER THE DRAGON. Unfortunately, the cat-and-mouse game of stealth also recalls a similar sequence from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KAHN, and the similarity is driven home even further when the next sequence involves a powerful man-made device creating a new planet (even including a character who sacrifices himself to save the other, just like Mr. Spock).
By now, you've probably figured out that the story ends happily for (almost) all concerned. It's a typical, feel-good finale, not bad but not new, either. It just drives the point home once again that, despite a look reminiscent of HEAVY METAL, this is still a rigorously traditional story; despite the pop music on the soundtrack, this is a basic Disney-type movie underneath it all, and it's afraid to go for broke. Sure, it looks like something different if you compare it to Disney's HERCULES or Bluth and co-director Gary Goldman's ANASTASIA, but it looks new only if you've never seen an anime feature.TITAN A.E. 20th Century Fox Presents A Blue Skies, Fox Animation Studios Production. Directed by Don Bluth & Gary Goldman. Written by Ben Edlund and John August and Joss Whedon; story by Randall McCormick and Hans Bauer. Produced by Bluth, Goldman, Pual Gertz, David Kirschner. Original music by Graeme Revell. Production design: Phil Stevin. June 15, 2000. Rated PG. Voices: Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, Tone Loc, Jim Breuer, Janeane Garofalo, John Leguizamo, Ron Perlman.