It's the year 3028, and man ... is an endangered species! (Haven't we heard that somewhere before, like last month?) But this time around, the threat is a little more intimidating than those effeminate, Xenu-worshipping Conehead psychologists in platform boots. The villains in Fox's new animated spectacular Titan A.E. are the Drej (pronounced "dredge," as in "dredge up all the good sci-fi movie ideas that have been used already, and recycle them"), a neon-blue race of energy beings halfway between the Independence Day invaders and Tron's video-game warriors, who speak in digital surround-sound bass and have their own portable Death Star, er, mothership that destroys whole planets in a single blast. The level of computer effects used here is superior to that of many live-action movies, and it's never more evident than during the apocalypse sequence that kicks things off (A.E. stands for After Earth). Given the subject matter and the eye-popping computer effects, there has been much speculation that U.S. animation has finally evolved beyond the kiddie stage, that Titan A.E. may be the film that makes animation safe for adults and shatters our homegrown stereotypes. And it's a good start. But it bears mentioning that the film's co-director/producer is Don Bluth.
Remember him? Former Disney employee, the man who brought us such NutraSweet overloads as An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven? Bluth is a man who thinks classic Disney animation is the pinnacle of the genre; did you really believe he'd take it to the cutting edge? Sorry, folks. Whatever your opinion may be of the Japanese anime look of stylized, triangular-faced human beings, it's certainly no worse, or more generic, than the wide-eyed cutesy-wannabe-Disney style employed by Bluth. Bluth has actually done sci-fi once before, for the interactive laserdisc game Space Ace, and if you've seen that, you know what to expect here: Every alien in the film looks like a classic Disney talking animal, from Janeane Garofalo's gun-toting kangaroo (shades of Tank Girl) to the turtle-with-glasses straight out of Robin Hood, here named Gune (pronounced, appropriately, "goon") and voiced by John Leguizamo. At least they don't say "meesa your humble servant."
Still, the designs aren't quite congruent with the more teen-oriented storyline: A wisecracking giant bug, for instance, is introduced early on, only to be splatted into goo by a Drej trooper, leaving just his dentures unscathed. Lead hero Cale (Matt Damon), meanwhile, envisions himself sustaining a gaping, bloody hole in his stomach at the hands of his enemies. Yet another character gets his neck aggressively broken. The fact that everyone looks like a Disney character makes these acts of violence seem doubly perverse. From a technical standpoint, however, it should be noted that the merging of three-dimensional CG animation (spacecraft, planets, etc.) with traditional hand-drawn (all characters other than the Drej) works just fine. The drawn characters are shaded for an effective enough 3-D illusion, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The film's plot is classic hero's journey -- reluctant warrior seeks mysterious object that will save his people -- embellished with story elements previously seen in Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, the Star Trek films and even Battlefield Earth (coincidentally, one assumes): A key development calls for a spaceship that's been derelict for years -- and used as a house -- to function perfectly, explained away by the ludicrously expository line "She's still got her ionic vacuum drive; those things never drain!" Our hero is Cale, a layabout with abandonment issues because his father never came back to find him after Earth was destroyed. Recruited by the mysterious renegade captain Korso (Bill Pullman), Cale discovers that his genetic code activates a map that will lead them to the Titan, a spaceship containing some kind of highly advanced secret that scared the Drej enough to provoke their preemptive attack on Earth. And thus the journey begins. Korso's ship, as is the norm in these animated movies, is crewed by a team of lovable misfits, all of them wacky aliens except for one who just happens to be the perfect love interest: a goth-punk chick named Akima, voiced by Drew Barrymore and wholeheartedly ripped off from the character Freefall from the comic book Gen13. Because primary Titan A.E. scripter Ben Edlund is a big name in the comic world, it's unlikely he missed the resemblance.
Misgivings aside, Titan A.E. delivers some of the most well-thought-out and-executed action sequences to hit the screen in quite some time, at least since Michael Bay's The Rock back in 1996. It's rare to find an action movie with one solid, memorable sequence these days, and Titan A.E. has at least four, all of which are truly impressive and should keep audiences sufficiently distracted from such minor details as character and script. And Graeme Revell's score, with its co-opting of world music, electronica and Also Sprach Zarathustra, is near-perfect; it's unfortunate that the producers couldn't leave well enough alone. Sensing marketing bucks, no doubt, someone had the bright idea to hire überproducer Glen Ballard to collect a "cutting-edge" song soundtrack (remember, Ballard's known for producing mainstream acts, from George Benson to Alanis Morissette). Thus many of the scenes are underscored with that hip music all the kids are listening to (in corporate executives' minds, anyway): Lit, Powerman 5000 and many others that sound like overproduced big-studio copies of the Sub Pop catalog circa 1991. Song lyrics are also needlessly blatant: When Cale flies a starship for the first time, for instance, a number called "It's My Turn to Drive" cranks itself up. It may beat Elton John-penned show tunes, but not by much.
Although plot is clearly secondary in a movie of this type, there are some story holes and stylistic choices that cannot be ignored. Given that the script was cooked up by the usually quick-witted Edlund (The Tick), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and John August (Go), its flaws are especially surprising. Did the dialog during the film's first half have to be quite so expository? Would a turtle-faced alien really use the oh-so-'90s taunt "Who's your daddy?" And since the South Park movie so hilariously deconstructed it as a cliché, can anyone take seriously a would-be tense moment when a character stares at a computer keyboard during a crisis situation and says something to the effect of "If I can just re-route the encryptions"?
Let's not even begin to count nitpicky inconsistencies, the way Internet geeks undoubtedly will, because there are plenty of obvious, major ones to consider. If the Titan can defeat the Drej, why didn't it when they first attacked? Why would characters engaged in a highly covert discussion leave the door open and yell at one another when there are clearly people around who aren't supposed to overhear? And during a chase through a field of ice crystals, the optical illusion "hall of mirrors" effect not only fools the characters' eyes but also throws off their sensors! What, they don't have basic sonar or heat detection in the year 3028?
None of this ultimately matters, really. Folks will go to Titan A.E. looking for summer escapism, and most of them will be pleased. Is it worth the goofy characters and weak story for the effects and action sequences? Absolutely. Go, have fun. Just don't expect the American equivalent of Ghost in the Shell or Princess Mononoke. Titan A.E. is merely a baby step toward animation as a medium not just for kids, but hey, as the Chinese say, that's how the journey of a thousand miles begins.
Opens June 16.