[box cover]

Titan A.E.

Fox Home Video

Starring the voices of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore
Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofalo
and John Leguizamo

Written by Hans Bauer, Randall McCormick, Ben Edlund
John August, and Joss Whedon

Directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Art Vitello


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


I. PREAMBLE

Criticism is easy. Animation is hard.

My fingers hover above the keyboard, ready to swing the ol' critical stick at Titan A.E. — a film I enjoyed, albeit with some been-there-seen-that reservations — and I'm conflicted. Because I realize that, compared to Don Bluth and his crackerjack team of animators and technicians, those of us who collect DVDs are a bunch of swooning milkmaids. Total pussies. Really.

Because no matter how much I disliked All Dogs Go to Heaven; no matter how much insulin/Ritalin combo therapy I needed after watching the entire Space Ace DVD in one continuous sitting; no matter what I think or write below, I am not working 1/1,000th as hard as the team that actually sat down and laboriously designed, budgeted, rotoscoped, pencil-tested, animated, colored, and re-animated Titan A.E.. Keep that in mind, readers.

I tip my hat to you, Don Bluth. You thumbed your nose at Disney when thumbing one's nose at Disney wasn't cool. You have thrice my courage and stamina. Take what I write below as respectful criticism.

Still, without criticism to define art, there wouldn't be art, would there? So then, to work.

II. THE STORY, TOLD SOMEWHAT MATHEMATICALLY

It's 3028 A.D. The Drej — nasty-looking aliens who might be defined in an equation as

1/2 {[Slayers from "Krull"] + .75 [Borg]} / (Stormtroopers)

— destroy the Earth, in a sequence that makes you feel sort of marvelously helpless about the whole thing. Apparently, the Drej feel threatened by the Earthlings' "Titan Project," which might be defined in an equation as

{.00073 [Death Star]} * [Genesis Project from Star Trek II] + {.003 [Jules Verne]}

Anyway. One of the Earthlings who escapes is a young child named Cale (voiced by Matt Damon), son of one of the "Titan Project" scientists. Cale's abandoned by Dad during the flight from the planet and grows up to be an 18-year-old refugee welder who might be defined in an equation as

[1/2 (Han Solo) + 1/2 (Luke Skywalker)] / {(.4)[Will Hunting]}

Soon, Cale finds out he's Hollywood's latest variation on "The One," with a very important schematic implanted in his reluctant hand. He hooks up with a ragtag band (voiced by, among others, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore, Nathan Lane and Janeane Garofalo), and they set off to find the Titan Project spacecraft, with the Drej in hot pursuit and many well-staged chases and diversions en route. In short, the plot might be defined in an equation as

(Star Wars) * {[.25 (Battlestar Galactica) * .75 (Star Trek II + Star Trek III)] / Waterworld}

So. Let's retire that mathematical conceit and move along, shall we?

III. WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT 'TITAN A.E.'

Quite a bit, actually — enough that I sincerely wanted to ignore the film's shortcomings, which I probably wouldn't be nitpicking anyway if I weren't older than age 15 and thus aware of Titan A.E.'s sci-fi antecedents.

The character animation, for one thing, is marvelous — provided you enjoy the Bluth style, which I do. All you purists yammering about "frame rate" and "computer/traditional blends" and whatnot will be pleased to hear that the different animation technologies blend rather nicely — and even if they don't, you stop noticing it soon enough, which I mean as a compliment.

"Props" also to the design team. The spaceships are nifty-looking (Bill Pullman's Valkrye is the first spaceship since Galaxy Quest's Enterprise knock-off that I wouldn't mind owning in toy form), the aliens are mostly pleasant variations on the humanoid formula, and the environments are occasionally stunning. There's one shot where Cale takes a lonely stroll on the Valkrye deck with a pink-orange nebula cloud filling the cockpit window; it's beautiful, and George Lucas should be taking notes for Episode 2. Ditto on the icy-moonlit shot of the Drej mothership floating through clouds a la Event Horizon. Ditto on the "Hydrogen Forest," which features a nifty boat chase with man-sized bats and Drej fighters zipping about.

And unlike the male leads of certain Disney cartoons I could mention, Matt Damon's Cale is the film's most charismatic vocal presence. He lends an easy confidence to the proceedings, never over-selling a line but always sounding interested in what's going on around him. (Parenthetical testament to the power of animation: Technically, there really isn't any "around him" for "him" to be interested in, is there? Um, cool.)

Also, characters die. Quite a few. This should please the more militant, older animation geeks. It pleased me.

Finally, I must lavish extra-special praise on one particular sequence in the film — a cat-and-mouse pursuit through a field of reflective ice asteroids (said ice field resembling nothing so much as a junkyard for decommissioned Kryptonian infant transports). Bluth and co-director Gary Goldman try valiantly to out-"Khan" Khan, combining the tension of a sub chase with house-of-mirrors suspense. It's good stuff, and it sort of renders everything else anticlimactic, but still. It's really good stuff.

IV. WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT 'TITAN A.E.'

Now, I want to preface this by writing that Titan A.E. is a perfectly pleasant movie. But in terms of story and script, it is a bit too pleasant — i.e. a bit too safe and familiar.

Frankly, this surprised me, given that it was co-written in part by Ben Edlund (creator of "The Tick") and Joss Whedon (he of "Buffy" and the whiny, Hollywood-sucks-even-as-I-get-rewrite-opportunities-you-would-kill-for disposition). As with Dinosaur — which I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed on its own merits — I got the feeling that certain lines of dialogue were focus-group tested. And Whedon's contribution appears to have been two lines of Star Wars dialogue inserted for wink-wink/nudge-nudge effect, plus the rather witty line, "Hm, an intelligent guard — didn't see that one coming," well-delivered by Nathan Lane.

Less forgivable are a couple of lapses in plot logic — characters escape capture and find their way to other locales with inadequate explanation a couple of times — plus some over-reliance on that current Star Trek staple, "If I can re-route the blah blah blah to the whozit, maybe we can do this...." But again, my criticism is tempered by my respect for what Bluth and his team have achieved — plus the knowledge that any last-minute "re-shoots" would mean assembling a team of dozens for weeks of painstaking work.

The lead villain has roughly three lines of dialogue, one of them being, "Destroy the humans. Destroy them all." Suffice it to say, the Drej's antagonistic motivation is a bit underdeveloped — though this is mitigated somewhat by their relentless nastiness. Still, I couldn't help but wonder precisely why they were so nasty — it would have been nice to know.

Also — and I'm not sure if this is a bad thing or not — Titan A.E. frequently felt like it was made in the early 1980s. You'd have to have been sentient then to know what I'm talking about, but facts are facts:

  1. There are some atrocious pop songs on the soundtrack that comment directly on the onscreen action (with titles like "Cosmic Castaway" and "It's My Time to Fly" — subtle!). In the pop-ditty sense and the pop-ditty sense alone, Titan A.E. frequently comes off as a vastly better-animated Heavy Metal, with a single storyline, for kids.

  2. There's also a "montage" sequence, set to another atrocious pop song (with the lyric "We've got to get out of here"), as Cale and the Drew Barrymore-voiced Akima repair a ship. A total '80s-film cliché, right out of D.C. Cab.


Upon reflection, I sort of liked the '80s touch. Let's move on.

My final criticism is sort of a compliment, too. Bluth frequently distinguishes himself by directing voices with a quasi-Robert Altman-esque naturalism; characters don't necessarily oversell their lines or take the easy, sitcom-inspired path where, say, a Disney or Warner Brothers character might. Brad Bird did the same thing with The Iron Giant.

For Bill Pullman and Matt Damon, Bluth's naturalistic approach to voice work plays more or less beautifully — humanizing their animated avatars to a degree that animation rarely achieves. (Still, when you're uttering a line like "Get this straight — I don't want any part of your mission, and I don't want your help," does naturalism really matter?) However, Bluth's approach also (a) makes Drew Barrymore sound a bit flat, and (b) undermines some of the humor.

V. THE DVD VALUE-ADD

With a budget of $75 million and a box-office tally of just $22.75 million in North America, Titan A.E., which took years to produce, was one of Fox's biggest theatrical disasters of 1999, and reportedly led in part to the departure of film division chairman Bill Mechanic soon after. If the film didn't get all of the attention it may have deserved upon release, Fox has come up with a generous special-edition on DVD. The anamorphic transfer is flawless (2.35:1), and discrete 5.1 audio comes in either Dolby Digital or DTS. A commentary track is on board with directors Bluth and Goldman, who pore over the details of the film's production. Also on board is a 20-minute "making-of" feature called "The Quest for Titan A.E." from the Fox Kids network that offers a look at the voice talents behind the microphones, among other snippets. Four deleted and alternate scenes are included, including early versions of the "Ice Crystals" and "Final Battle" sequences (and with a lot of undeveloped animatics in place of final animation), and there is a still gallery with additional artwork. Titan A.E. may have an '80s groove, but a video from the post-grunge band Lit is included ("Over My Head"), with the requisite cross-marketing (the band appears to be in the film — amazing!). And I'm always glad to see the THX Optimode feature included on DVDs, as it is here, for proper video and audio calibration.

— Alexandra DuPont


(Editor's note: Alexandra DuPont's original theatrical review of Titan A.E. appeared on aintitcoolnews.com.)



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