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An audience must be engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief for a film to work. We really have to believe that the Millennium Falcon can make the jump to light speed, that Roy Hobbs can swat a home run that hits the scoreboard, that David Spade could date a supermodel. This is especially true of animated features, where literally everything the audience sees is invented. The best animated films build a new world that audiences readily accept and gladly join – ten minutes into either of the Toy Story movies, and it seems perfectly logical that Woody and Buzz can talk. Titan A.E. fails to convincingly create such a world – it’s a mismatched assortment of components that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Titan A.E.’s co-director Don Bluth is a former Disney animator who formed his own animation studio in the early 1980s and produced and directed films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time. While moderate commercial successes, Bluth Studios films were always viewed as second echelon compared to their Disney counterparts, both in terms of story line and animation quality. In 1996 Bluth and Gary Goldman joined 20th Century Fox to head up the new Fox Animation Studios. Their first production for Fox was Anastasia, which faithfully followed the Disney animated musical template and served notice that there was now another major player on the field. Titan A.E. is the second effort from Fox Animation, and co-directors Bluth and Goldman have gone awry.
One problem with the film is its several different animation looks and styles. It uses state-of-the-art CGI extensively for both scenery and spacecraft, and for the most part looks impressively realistic. But CGI has its limitations – computers have a far easier time representing hard, flat, and consistent surfaces than random ones. Toys and spacecraft are easier for CGI to draw than human figures, hair or skin. It’s only with Disney’s recent release Dinosaur that a studio has used CGI to do a convincing job of representing complex images, like individual hairs in a lemur’s fur. To overcome this limitation, Titan A.E. uses traditional hand drawn and inked 2-D cel animation for all its characters. And it is unfortunately crude animation at that – the characters look like something from a Saturday morning cartoon. Their facial expressions and the synchronization of mouth movements with dialog are particularly imprecise. The juxtaposition of crude 2-D characters against the more complex and real-looking 3-D CGI backdrop is jarring. Throughout the film, the audience is constantly reminded: this is FAKE.
The Generic Space Opera story line doesn’t help. It’s 3028 and the Earth has been destroyed (A.E. = After Earth) by the Drej, evil aliens made of pure energy. A few survivors escaped, but the human race has become a tattered and homeless tribe, scattered across the universe. Their only hope is to find the Titan – a huge spacecraft that was one of the last few vessels to leave before Earth’s destruction – it holds the secrets to recreate a new world. Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) is a reluctant hero – he’s the son of Titan’s designer and holds the key that can lead to its discovery. He allies with Korso (Bill Pullman), a human who once knew Cale’s father, and Akima (Drew Barrymore), a gorgeous and highly skilled pilot, to search for the Titan. A motley crew of sympathetic aliens (John Leguizamo, Janeane Garofalo, and Nathan Lane) are also along for the ride.
Five contributors to the screenplay are listed in the credits, but what resulted from this committee is cliched and tired. The characters are strictly stock, plot surprises aren’t, and whole sections are purloined from other films. At times the plagiarism is so blatant that individual scenes appear to have been created by tracing over stills from Star Wars and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. While not a musical, there are several 80s-style rock tunes on the soundtrack during transitions in the story – they might have added to the film if the lyrics had been intelligible.
There are a few impressive scenes – the destruction of Earth and the rebirth of a new world are obvious big-budget numbers. But the only sense of wonder that Titan A.E. ever inspires is curiosity – why its makers chose to use a cast that looks so primitive and acts so predictably next to all the shiny high-tech toys on display.
– Bob Aulert