Sunday, March 22, 2015

Titan A.E. (Fox Animation Studios, 2000)

The year was 2000. AOL ruled the internet, George Bush was known mainly for occasionally saying something silly, and a young Jimmy Fallon was teaching us all how to laugh. As America settled into the new Willenium, a nerdy tenth grader named Brian Lynch was very excited about a new movie, a cool sci-fi drama. Something mature, with real ideas. Something that knew animation that didn’t have to be for kids. Finally, the promise of Invasion America would be fulfilled! And it came out and I loved it. I watched the VHS several times, but I haven’t seen it at all over the past dozen years. Turns out it’s not that good. Spoilers.






I’ll be honest, even looking back over what an idiot I was as a teenager (we all were), my desire for mature animation wasn’t completely unfounded. The Animation Age Ghetto, as TV Tropes calls it, was much more strongly in place back then. After a brief, Ralph Bakshi-driven surge of animated drama for adults in the late 70s/early 80s, but had mostly died off by my high school years. The Simpsons, and other shows like The Critic, King of the Hill, and Beavis and Butthead had shown that non-kid oriented animated comedy was viable, and that would be solidified in 2001 with the creation of Adult Swim, but drama/action? Not so much. There were attempts, such as Æon Flux, The Maxx, Spawn, and the aforementioned Invasion America, but none of them were huge hits. The biggest successes in animated drama actually WERE for kids, Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Batman Beyond, which did not seem to feel the need to tell people it was an animated series. It was my love of these shows that left me desperate to see a real, proper, animated sci-fi movie. Sure, a lot of it was just teenage insecurity at liking “kid’s stuff”, but mostly it was a desire to see someone take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium.

Like, maybe it could have more butts in it.

The biggest problem this movie has is that perception, that cartoons were for kids. I have no doubt that Joss Whedon (Yeah! Him!) and Don Bluth (Yeah! Still!) fully intended to make a real had sci-fi story, but I have equally little doubt that Fox fully intended to sell Happy Meal toys, and the result is maddeningly schizophrenic, constantly pulling punches, afraid to be seen as something kid’s wouldn’t watch. And yet, there’s still clearly drama meant for adult audiences. There’s blood and beatings. People die. You very clearly see a butt at one point. And yet the movie is also full of moments intended to appeal to a child audience. And the marketing was just as confused as the movie.

Of course, there were other problems. The film had languished in development hell for years by the time Whedon and Bluth came on. Bluth was the second director, and Whedon the fifth writer, with Tick creator and future Angel head writer Ben Edlund taking the first draft, and Tim Burton mainstay John August further refining it. When a film’s been around for that long, switching creators that much, it’s a film without a vision. And it was finally rushed out just so it would beat Treasure Planet to theaters.

There is still a lot of good, though. The plot is pretty trite, to be honest. Alien race attacks Earth, humanity nearly wiped out, surviving humans scattered, ragtag crew looks for The Titan, a race-saving MacGuffin. But the story built on that formulaic framework is a lot of fun. Whedon’s fingers are all over this one, and the movie often plays like a rough draft of Firefly. The heroes’ ship, in particular, basically is Serenity. Buffy was a few years in by this point, so his banter engine was running at full speed. His love of subverting expectations also appears, most notably in a bit where the crew tries to bluff their into a prison, and the guard, rather than being fooled, just points out several major flaws in their disguises. There’s also a bit where they have to jump across the vacuum of space from one ship to another, and they exhale before they do so, which is what you would do, but is hardly obvious. There are also excellent uses of gravity-free environments and a crazy chase in a planet’s rings. Why rings and not the more traditional asteroid field? Because asteroids in an asteroid field are several million miles apart, despite what Star Fox has told you.

They did have a Slippy, though.

Since this is Bluth’s last movie, I’m pleased to report that the animation is mostly excellent. The rotoscoping is back, and apart from some moments where people had to move quickly across the CGI backgrounds and looked like they were floating, it still works. The alien design is very good, even if it is obvious that they all started with “Earth Animal ________ + Space”. CGI was used very extensively, comprising not just the backgrounds, but all the props, most costumes, and the entire enemy species. The actual quality of the CGI is ehh, but probably as good as any non-Pixar company could do at the time. But the 2D characters’ interaction with it was better than I’ve seen in any pre-2000 film. I particularly liked the scenes set outside the ships, where the 2D humans were put inside big, chunky 3D spacesuits. The actual space stuff also looks great, with a real highlight of the film being a Red October-style battle between two ships trying to avoid each other in a crowd of huge ice crystals, which threw up huge reflections and screwed with all the sensors.

Bluth’s A-game at casting is also still felt, albeit with some notable and rare missteps, namely the three human leads. Like Meg Ryan and John Cusack in Anastasia, we’ve got a real bland people issue, here. The heroes are Matt Damon, right on the first crest of his movie stardom, and Drew Barrymore, then at one of the peaks of hers. Neither has a particularly distinctive voice, and the fact that the audibly super-white Barrymore is playing a Japanese character doesn’t help. Damon’s character is “Cale Tucker”, which is a terrible name. As their captain, Bill Pullman does have a distinctive voice, but he doesn’t do anything with it but be bland and fatherly. What’s really annoying about that is that Cale’s actual father, who only appears in two brief scenes, is played by Ron Perlman, who is amazing as always, but looks like this:

That is not what someone who sounds like Ron Perlman should look like. Cast Pullman as Bland Dad and let Perlman play the morally grey badass space pirate, that’s what I say. The aliens, thankfully, fare much better. Still picking hip and current actors, but this time ones that can actually do a character voice. John Leguizamo plays a turtley little scientist, and Janeane Garofalo plays the badass gunner. Best performance in the movie, though, goes to Nathan Lane, who puts on a vaguely British accent and plays Preed, the ship’s slim, muscular, sexy, and dangerous first mate, skillfully adopting several adjectives that one would normally not apply to Nathan Lane. Supporting voices include Tone Loc, Charles Rocket, and Jim Bruer, because 2000.

Speaking of Because 2000, remember back in the first half of that decade, when every movie was desperate to sell you a soundtrack full of trendy hits that play loudly at several points throughout the movie? Yeah, that happens here in a big way. Lit, Splashdown, and of course, Powerman 5000. Powerman 5000 was on pretty much every single soundtrack of the decade. Especially video game ones. Anyway, for me, this was fun and nostalgic, but if you’re someone who would find their suspension of disbelief damaged by the movie taking a two minute break so they can have a montage set to a Jamiroquai single, be warned.

"Who's been messing with my Green Jellÿ albums? Okay, album. Okay, the Maximum Carnage soundtrack."

Look, I know I ragged on this a bit at the beginning of the review, and yeah, it’s a mess. But it’s a grand mess, and a mess worth seeing. The film was a huge flop, it shut down Fox Animation, ended Bluth’s already floundering career, and helped spell the end for 2D animation. But it’s still worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of Whedon. Is it the Serious Business Sci-fi Drama that 16 year old Brian wanted? Not remotely. But it’s good enough for a bit of light fun.


* Bluth basically retired after this, with only a couple of video games and a music video to his name since. He makes the occasional rumble about directing another feature, but mostly seems happy with a bit of writing and teaching. He continues working with Gary Goldman, who still doesn’t seem to feel like making a big deal about himself.

* Joss Whedon also co-wrote Toy Story, so he’s got one animation success story.

"Someone order some faceless, underdeveloped, dumb looking villains?

* Remember Invasion America? Of course you don’t.

* The A.E. stands for “After Earth”, by the way. The film takes place in the year 16 A.E.

* Okay, I got some spoilers to talk about here, so since I recommended the movie, I’m separating them.


* Bill Pullman actually has a few good moments, all of which come after his character was revealed to be working for the Drej the whole time, leading them to the Titan so they could destroy it. The harsh edge in his voice works much better for a villain, and he puts a lot more energy into it. Still would have been better as Ron Perlman, though.
"Damn you, sexy Nathan Lane!"
* Preed was also working for them, but after an attempt at a triple cross, he is extremely brutally killed onscreen via neck-snapping by Korso. Apart from the butt, this is the movie’s biggest moment of confusion over who their audience is meant to be.

* Cale eventually beats the Drej by using their bodies as fuel for the Titan. Since it’s hypothesized earlier that the Drej feared what humanity might to to them if they reached space, I GUESS THEY WERE RIGHT. Jeez, that’s a stupid ending.

* And how exactly does the Titan work? With a massive charge of energy, apparently from a few thousand sentient beings, it explodes all the crystals in the rings, and uses them to build a planet around itself? If it’s the core of the new planet, how are all the DNA samples inside of it going to get out to form the new Earth? How did Cale and Akima wind up standing on its surface? Why does it already have mountains and oceans? How do they eat, and breathe, and other science facts?

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