Friday, February 3, 2012

Titan A.E.

Anticipation was high for Titan A.E. on the eve of its release in June 2000. Scripted by Ben Edlund, Joss Whedon (the creative braintrust that would go on to make the Firefly television show) and John August, and directed by maverick former Disney animator Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH) and Gary Goldman (An American Tail), it was a space opera in the tradition of the Star Wars films. Titan A.E. ambitiously combined hand-drawn animation with computer-generated imagery and was touted as the first major motion picture to be projected digitally. Unfortunately, the film was badly marketed with the general public unsure if it was intended for children or for an older science fiction audience. It didn’t help that at the time Bluth stated in an HBO First Look special that his film wasn’t a cutesy kiddie musical but rather a non-stop action film. Titan A.E. received mixed critical reviews and flopped badly at the box office, resulting in the closing Fox Animation Studios. It was also the last feature film Bluth and Goldman would helm. It’s a shame really, as the film features gorgeously rendered animation, engaging characters and an engrossing story.


It is 3028 and humanity is working on the Titan project, a groundbreaking experiment that promises to unlock our full potential. However, an energy-based alien race known as the Drej feel threatened by this project and proceed to destroy Earth in order to stop it. Professor Sam Tucker (Ron Perlman) is an important scientist with the project and as the aliens attack, he puts his five-year-old son Cale on a spacecraft that barely manages to escape. Unfortunately, Sam isn’t so lucky. It’s a pretty ballsy move to begin the film with the destruction of the Earth and the death of the protagonist’s father. It sends a strong message that this isn’t going to be some wishy-washy children’s animated film. It’s a spectacular sequence that basically says all bets are off in this film. Titan A.E. flashes forward 15 years later and Cale (Matt Damon) has grown up and is working as a mechanic on a salvage station in outer space. He’s bit of a reckless screw-up lacking direction in his life.

During one of his lunch breaks, Cale is saved from being beaten up by two aliens by a fellow human named Korso (Bill Pullman), who offers him a chance to join a very dangerous mission. Korso worked with Cale’s father on the Titan project and wants to find the spacecraft in order to unlock its secrets. The Drej arrive and Cale and Korso narrowly escape in an exciting action sequence that ends with them being shot into outer space. Cale joins Korso and his crew – his pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore), the alien first mate Preed (Nathan Lane), the gruff weapons expert Stith (Janeane Garofalo), and Gune (John Leguizamo), the ship’s eccentric scientist. There are brief lulls between exciting action sequences as the Drej relentlessly pursue our heroes.

The first Star Wars film is an obvious influence on Titan A.E. with Cale as the young, brash Luke Skywalker-esque pilot, Korso as the sarcastic Han Solo-type rogue, and Akima, a tough, Princess Leia-esque heroine with Stith as the Chewbacca surrogate. In some respects, Titan A.E. also feels like a warm-up for Firefly as writers Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund were beginning to work out the archetypes of the crew of the Serenity with the motley crew in this film. Korso anticipates Jayne, Akima contains elements of Kaylee, and Cale exhibits a few characteristics of Malcolm Reynolds. Not to mention, the enigmatic and ruthless Drej predict the equally mysterious and vicious Reavers in Firefly.

The voice casting is excellent with Matt Damon’s youthful sounding voice perfect for the energetic Cale, Bill Pullman’s weathered voice is ideally suited for the grizzled, veteran warrior Korso, and Drew Barrymore’s expressive voice helps bring the feisty Akima to life. The mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI is impressively rendered as they combine to create some eye-popping visuals, helping realize the film’s epic scope. It is fluid and rich in detail – there is so much to look at in each and every frame. Titan A.E. features a galaxy populated with exotic planets, like Sesharrim with its brown hydrogen trees and red sky where our heroes encounter a bat-like race known as Gaoul. This is contrasted with the cool, metallic blue of the Drej homeworld that resembles a funky hybrid of the computer world from Tron (1982) and the Borg mothership from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Producer David Kirschner first brought what would become known as Titan A.E. to 20th Century Fox as a live-action film, “a sort of Treasure Island in outer space.” It was in development for more than five years and originally known as Planet Ice. It was initially conceived as a live-action feature but Fox decided it would be more interesting and less expensive to produce as an animated film. Known for creating successful animated films like An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth and Gary Goldman saw this project as quite a departure in terms of look, subject matter and target audience. Once they came on board in 1998, it was re-titled Titan A.E.

At the time, Fox was determined to compete with Disney in the feature animation field by spending millions of dollars on groundbreaking CGI technology and told Bluth and Goldman to make a film that featured innovative visuals and effects. The first thing the two men did was redesign the entire film. According to Goldman, the film was originally going to be 40% CG but ended up closer to 90%. He wanted to get a 3-D look while still maintaining a cartoon feel. He and Bluth were aware that their target audience – adolescent boys – were generally not into animated films and decided to adopt a darker, moodier color palette.

In another effort to appeal to teenage boys, the studio enlisted Grammy award winning producer/songwriter Glen Ballard who populated the soundtrack with contemporary bands like Lit, Jamiroquai and Luscious Jackson to complement composer Graeme Revell’s electronic music score. The $55 million film was a risky venture for the animation department of Fox whose fate rested on its success or failure. However, a year before the film was finished, Fox laid off 300 out of 380 of its animation staff members leaving very few people to make the film. An early test screening in Orange County went well with several teenagers comparing Titan A.E. favorably with Star Wars. However, Bill Mechanic, head of Fox, left the studio and Fox Feature Animation was shut down. Bluth and Goldman left and Titan A.E. died a quick death at the box office.

Titan A.E. was the first Hollywood film to be digitally transmitted across the United States over the Internet and then digitally projected into cinemas. The film was pummeled by critics that, with a few exceptions, slammed it as being a Star Wars rip-off. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “Titan A.E. tries to pack so much into 90 minutes that the characters don't have enough screen time to engage our emotions. Cale and Akima in particular have all the depth of television spinoffs of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. This is not to say that Titan A.E. isn't entertaining in its breezy, mild-mannered way, only that its mythology and characters barely resonate.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, “Think of it as Noah's Ark, with a few plot changes inspired by the Space Invaders video game.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The traditional cartoon elements of Titan A.E., both the story and visuals, are unutterably bland. Cale has been conceived as the sort of blond Matt Damon action figure you'd expect to get with a Happy Meal.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “This story's relatively lofty ideas about saving the human race, and its endless twists and turns, are going to soar over the heads of many young audiences—and probably bore them, too. The scenario and special effects are too lackluster for slightly older, sensation-hungry kids, presumably the target audience. And the humor is far too lame for the parents in the audience. Which makes Titan a must-see for . . . almost no one.” USA Today gave the film two and a half out of four stars and Mike Clark called it, “visually impressive but woefully dumbed-down.”

However, Roger Ebert gave the film three and half out of four stars and wrote, “One test for any movie is when you forget it's a movie and simply surf along on the narrative. That can happen as easily with animation as live action, and it happens here. The movie works as adventure, as the Star Wars pictures do.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Titan A.E.'s rudimentary narration does work up a certain amount of propulsion. But it's not the story that's the story here, it's the film's bravura visual look.”

Titan A.E. is about the survival of the human race and what it means to be human with Cale learning to appreciate his heritage. Along the way he grows and falls in love. The film is also a rousing action/adventure tale with a vivid color scheme, larger than life characters that must face a seemingly undefeatable foe. Admittedly, Titan A.E. isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of originality but it also isn’t trying to, instead delivering an entertaining ride on that level it certainly succeeds.

3 comments:

  1. J.D.

    I could not agree more. Titan A.E. is a terrific animation.

    Great that you mention Joss and Firefly because Titan A.E. really captures the spirit of that series in spots. Your fourth paragraph really hits it on the head. At the time I had seen this film I had not seen Firefly. Having seen both, it all makes perfect sense now and you cover it justifiably here. Nice work!


    I saw this film much later and was really glad I did when I finally did see it. It was a terrific little film with Bluth providing his standard high quality of animation.

    In fact, my only complaint has nothing to do with the hand drawn work. The CGI is abysmal. Damn computers! They take so many great pictures and just ruin them with poor CGI. I would have preferred a hand drawn villain.

    Speaking of great animation and Treasure Island, Disney's Treasure Planet [2002] is another terrific science fiction animation [140 million budget and another disappointment at the box office]. That one is a winner too if memory serves me.

    It saddens me to see so many simply slag off a production like Titan A.E. or the early Battlestar Galactica as rip offs. It's such a cop out and it's lazy writing with very little to back up these kinds of comparisons normally.

    Hell, Titan A.E. is animated for starters and not once did I feel like it was Star Wars when I saw this thing. It was vibrant good fun in the spirit of that classic but that was it.

    I think you're last sentence sums it up quite nicely, effectively. Titan A.E. is solid. Roger Ebert is often fair rather than hackneyed as a writer. That's what I enjoy about his work usually.

    Your assessment is spot on and I'm glad you enjoyed it in much the same way I did. You are speaking my language J.D.! Great entry on this fine friday.

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  2. The critics were wrong about it "just" being a Star Wars clone (which is like calling The Bourne Identity a James Bond clone). That's just a lazy excuse to not actually critique a movie.

    But they weren't wrong about the length. A lot of stuff ended up on the cutting room floor (sometimes glaringly!) that could have made this movie seriously worthwhile and successfully bridging that gap being applicable for kids and adults. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be, no more, no less.

    Those involved with overseeing editing often ignore this fact because they believe in mythological averages applying all the time, and that things like comedies and animated films must never be longer than 90 minutes.

    Dumbasses.

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  3. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words and stellar comments!

    Like yourself, I had not seen FIREFLY when I first saw TITAN A.E. but in retrospect it really does seem like Whedon and Edlund were working things out for what would later become FIREFLY.

    Y'know, the CGI really doesn't bother me so much with this film. But I agree, I would have preferred it to be completely hand-drawn but it certainly doesn't take me out of the film.

    I have yet to see TREASURE PLANET. I must really give it a try.

    It's nice to see that we are sympatico on this film. I kinda figured you'd be a fan of it.


    Mossfoot:

    Yeah, I never really felt like TITAN was ripping off STAR WARS. And wasn't Lucas just "ripping off" others that came before him?

    I'm glad you pointed out the length of the film and how some material was cut out. I would love to see a longer cut where characters and their relationships were fleshed out more.

    I share you frustrations!

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