Titan A.E.
review by Joe Barlow, 16 June 2000

One of the most amazing things about Don Bluth's Titan A.E. -- and there is no shortage of them -- is the simple fact that the actions of its characters have consequences. The heroes of this tale aren't invincible, Rambo-like creatures, unconcerned with the dangers that surround them on every side; they often get hurt. They experience fear under stress. They behave, in short, like real people would under the same conditions. It may seem like a small touch, but the very fact that Titan A.E. bothers to paint its protagonists in a vulnerable light makes it much easier for the audience to admire -- and become concerned for -- the heroes; they are "real" to us. That's an impressive achievement in its own right, but it's especially noteworthy given the fact that Titan A.E. is completely animated.

Director Don Bluth is no stranger to science-fiction: one of his earliest animated hits was Space Ace, the laserdisc-based video game he co-created in 1983, along with its more popular cousin, Dragon's Lair. With Titan A.E., Bluth has taken a significant leap forward in the field of quality animation, matching an intriguing premise with some of the most spellbinding visuals ever to grace the silver screen. Titan A.E. is a monumental feather in Bluth's cap, a tour-de-force of glitz and graphics that will no doubt become the centerpiece of his career, which has already seen its share of both smash hits (An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven) and box-office disasters (the oft-maligned The Secret of Nimh, a film this reviewer loved). But Bluth has come a tremendous distance since these earlier offerings: comparing the animation in Titan A.E. to, say, Space Ace, is a bit like comparing The Beatles' "Love Me Do" to the finely-honed melodies of the band's "Abbey Road" album -- yes, it's still recognizably the same group, but their growing mastery of craft and willingness to experiment makes the later material sound light years ahead of their previous work.

The story: All his life, young Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) has been an outcast. A refugee who escaped mere moments before the Earth was destroyed by an alien race known as the Dredge, the young pilot has developed an intense streak of self-preservation as a way of dealing with the loneliness he feels after the untimely death of his father. Cale has found it difficult to adjust to living in an alien culture ("I do an honest day's work. All I want is for them to kill my food before they serve it to me," he complains), but he hangs on; quite simply, he has no alternative. One day, a stranger appears. This fellow human (voiced by Bill Pullman) was working with Cale's father on a top secret project called Titan, an immense machine with the power to create planets... including a replacement Earth! But Titan also has immense destructive potential (shades of Wrath of Khan), and soon Cale finds himself -- quite against his wishes -- the focal point in the struggle to locate and resurrect the project before all is lost.

Titan A.E. is proud of its roots, and contains numerous winks to established sci-fi classics, including the obligatory Star Wars homage ("Should I get out and push?" asks the lovely Akima -- voiced by Drew Barrymore -- when Cale has difficulty getting his spaceship's engines to ignite). Kubrick is also a major influence on the filmmakers, for in many ways Titan A.E. recalls the majesty of 2001: A Space Odyssey: in both films, the main thing is the spectacle, not the story. How fortunate for us, then, that Titan A.E. actually provides an intelligent plot. Unlike a certain recent George Lucas sci-fi blockbuster, Titan A.E. has the narrative muscle to match its astounding eye-candy. The film is one of the most kinetic works of art I have ever seen: Bluth directs the animation with a tenacity that John Woo himself would envy, paying such attention to pace and rhythm that you could almost tap your foot in time to the editing of the action sequences. This film seems to be an intentional attempt to mimic a more Japanese style of animation in both execution and tone; not only are the colors simultaneously richer in hue yet drenched in shadow, but the storyline and execution are both far darker than anything you'd ever expect to find in, say, a Disney flick. Unfortunately, innovation is rarely rewarded by American audiences. Case in point: The Iron Giant, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest animated films in motion-picture history, was a box- office disaster, despite receiving nearly universal rave reviews. The fact that Titan A.E. dares to try something different in the field of feature-length animation will probably make it an odd-man- out at the box office. The film's innovations may disappoint parents, who are not used to cartoons which -- gasp -- have violence and (implied) sexuality as part of their makeup.

The bottom line: Titan A.E. is one of the finest examples of American animation that has ever been created. But since it didn't come from Disney, it will naturally be a box-office disaster. And it's a damned shame, too -- better see it while you can.

Directed by:
Don Bluth

(the voices of):

Matt Damon
Bill Pullman
Janeane Garafalo
Nathan Lane
Tone Loc
John Leguizamo
Drew Barrymore

Written by:
Ben Edlund
John August
Josh Whedon







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