Talking about animated movies is one of the Things I Like To Do on this blog, and it’s been quite some time since I talked about Don Bluth. So let’s talk about Titan A.E. (2000), the movie that kinda sorta ended his career in feature films.
Its hard for me not to have an immediate fondness for what Titan A.E. is, conceptually: a mainstream animated take on classic Campbellian space opera. It’s a rare movie that doesn’t feel beholden to the normal expectations of what an American animated movie should be.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s kinda bad.
Titan A.E. begins some 1000 years into the future with the earth getting blown up by aliens of pure energy called the Drej for…reasons. Said planetary destruction separates Professor Sam Tucker (Ron Pearlman) from his son, Cale, but not before bequeathing him a Mysterious Ring. Years later, a now adult Cale (Matt Damon) is a jaded, cynical blue-collar worker in an interstellar, alien world that views humans as the scum of the universe.
Things take a turn for the obvious when Cale gets conscripted by Captain Korso (Bill Pullman) onto a mission to find the Titan – the mysterious project that Tucker was working on, and which may turn out to be humanity’s last hope. The ring, it turns out, has the map to Titan encrypted into it, in addition to acting as its ignition key.
Also part of Korso’s rag-tag crew is fellow human and forced love interest Akima (Drew Barrymore), the bat-like Preed (Nathan Lane), the absent-minded froglike Gune (John Leguiziamo), and the reptillian-ish kangaroo-ish Stith (Janeane Garofalo). And from here on the movie follows beat-for-beat your standard treasure hunt story.
There’s very little charm to be found among the cast and so much of the dialogue falls flat. Cale in particular comes across as a sullen smartass who makes a completely unearned about-face into a bland idealist. Only Stith kinda stands out for having both the best character design and for being endearingly cranky and wanting to punch/shoot her way through everything – not too far from how I like to play Commander Shepherd in the Mass Effect trilogy, actually.
The script has all the fingerprints of golden age sci-fi with its handy, all-American heroes using their technical know-how and physical prowess to navigate their way through dangerous and exotic worlds filled with weird-looking aliens who are also often just working-class schlubs of a different sort. And yet there’s barely any passing interest given to developing any of this, as the script treats its world as only so much window-dressing for the plot to travel from A to B in front of. You never learn much about this future, and what you do learn about it only raises the wrong questions (is real estate really so scarce in the universe that humans can only live in run-down space station slums now that the earth is gone?).
All this might be forgivable if that window-dressing was interesting to look at. But alas, Titan A.E. is an ugly animated film. It combines traditional animation with CG to disastrous effect; most of the characters are competently done hand-drawns while the backgrounds are hideously aged CG. It’s never convincing that the two aspects actually exist on the same plane.
The human designs are as bland as their personalities; the alien designs are more caricatured and varied and indeed are the visual highpoint of the affair, especially if you have a liking for weird-looking anthropomorphic characters. It’s frustrating, because I can see something cool here, but its buried under a lot of ugly.
And it is a shame, because I really dig what Titan A.E. hints at. It was ultimately yet another ill-fated attempt to reach the teenage boy demographic (who, especially in the year 2000, either were too old for that animated kiddie crap or had discovered anime and sworn off American cartoons) but it chaffs against the animation ghetto nonetheless. Revisiting it made me pine for a world where we would have big-budget animated action blockbusters to rival the likes of Marvel and Star Wars, where you could have adult-targeted cartoons that aren’t just another poorly sitcom or crap like Sausage Party.
And so, although it is kinda not-good, I do feel that Titan A.E.’s heart is in the right place.