REVIEW: Titan AE (2000)

titanae_postrer15 years after the planet Earth has been destroyed by the alien Drej, orphaned human Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) works in a deep space salvage yard. When he is found by rogue pirate captain Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman), he is dragged into a race against time to discover the Titan – a massive lost spaceship built by his father and intended to save the surviving human race.

Time to jump to the year 2000, and Don Bluth’s final animated feature Titan AE. This long-gestating 20th Century Fox project was originally developed as a live-action film, but budgetary concerns led to being re-imagined as an animated project. With Bluth and directing partner Gary Goldman hot at the studio based on the success of Anastasia (1997), they were offered the film as their next assignment.

It is a genuinely odd film for Bluth, who had worked an entire near-two decade career directing children’s and family films about talking mice, baby dinosaurs and all manner of fairy tale creatures. Titan AE is directed at an older, more teenage demographic, and has a technological basis starkly different from his earlier films. It is also presented through a blend of hand-drawn characters and computer-generated images. If there is a planet, a spaceship, or a member of the energy-based Drej, it is presented in CGI. If there is a human (or, at least, humanoid) character, it is composed in the traditional method – albeit with a fair amount of rotoscoping involved – something Titan AE shares with its predecessor Anastasia. The film gains a specific and unique aesthetic, something it has honestly aged into: in 2000 the sharp contrast between CGI and hand-drawn images felt somewhat clumsy; now it feels like a stylistic asset.

Beyond the visuals, however, the film begins to struggle. The storyline is oddly simple and poorly paced. Some parts race at a million miles an hour, while at other times the film begins to drag painfully. Not enough happens between characters to justify the emotional connections they suddenly build, and there are a string of lost opportunities for story, character, and action throughout. It is still a broadly enjoyable movie, but importantly it is a broadly enjoyable movie that could – and should – have been a lot better.

Part of the problem clearly stems from the shoe-horning of a live-action script into an animated one. The screenplay instinctively feels like it would be better in live-action with actual performers photographed on set. Animation is too abstracted to successfully replicate genuine human subtlety – which is fine, of course, as it’s not designed to. With that stronger emotional expression, however, the leaps and jumps in character development with which Titan AE struggles would feel more natural and effective. Then again, among the various elements of the movie it is the screenplay that has dated the most: Written by Ben Edlund (The Tick) and then subsequently re-drafted by both John August (Charlies Angels) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it all plays out so late-1990s that it hurts.

The film’s soundtrack is also a relic of a past generation. Graeme Revell’s decent orchestral score gets edged out by a string of rock and funk including Powerman 5000, Jamiroquai, the Urge, and Luscious Jackson. They are not scored into the movie with any real sense of tone or appropriateness, but rather one suspects to supply enough tracks to make a lucrative tie-in soundtrack CD.

Fun but faulty, Titan AE suffered from 20th Century Fox shutting down its animation division while the film was in production. When released it failed to earn back its production budget. That, in essence, was that for Don Bluth. While he was involved in an unsuccessful crowd-funding campaign for a Dragon’s Lair feature film a few years ago, Titan AE remains his last directorial feature. It stands as an uneven blend of success and failure, but at least for once he balanced the tone right.

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