That “Titan A.E.” is likely to go down as one of the most under-seen and under-appreciated films of all time is genuinely heartbreaking. At the time of its release in 2000, it was sidelined by a grossly mishandled marketing campaign that obscured its originality, concealed its greatness, and gave no real indication of its intended audience. As a result, it flopped at the box office, and went on to be the last film released by Fox Animation Studios before their foreclosure and eventual revival in 2009 with Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
Featuring the voices of Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore, and Nathan Lane, and directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman—two former Disney animators responsible for “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time”—“Titan A.E.” is a rousing, visually discombobulating science fiction adventure that bears its influences openly and affectionately and uses them as a tonal and stylistic springboard for its own distinct vision.
Drawing heavily from the likes of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” (watching it, one can’t help but think of J.J. Abrams’ hugely successful “Star Trek” reboot from last year), not to mention countless anime with sci-fi themes aplenty, the film functions on the shoulders of archetypes of heroism and adventure and renders them as successfully and with as much imagination as the best of contemporary children’s science fiction/fantasy.
The story begins on the soon-to-be-obliterated planet earth in the final stages of an extraterrestrial assault in the year 3028, where a young Cale (Alex D. Linz) is placed on an evacuation spaceship by his father (Ron Perlman), and sent off in the default custody of Tek (Tone Loc), your standard portly avuncular guardian. Cale’s father is the lead researcher for Project Titan: a monumental technological and scientific effort undertaken to ensure the proliferation of the human species by way of the colonization of a new earth.
After these introductory passages, “Titan A.E.” jumps forward 15 years to Cale’s current, unglamorous whereabouts working at a junkyard in deep space. It’s here we meet Korso (Pullman), a friend of Cale’s now-deceased father who needs Cale’s help in finding the Titan—the ship his father hid that holds the keys to creating a new earth—made possible by a ring containing a map to the ship given to Cale by his father with a genetic encoding through which only he has access.
As the voice of the now fully grown Cale, Matt Damon—largely in accordance with the character’s physical appearance—creates a kind of interstellar, PG Will Hunting who’s cynical and confrontational and whose aggressively-shrouded longing is deeply felt. All the voice work in the film, in addition to Damon’s, is extremely effective. The cast is comprised of actors with voices either rich or idiosyncratic enough to get lost in the identity of their characters and not be responsible for a two hour guessing game (ex: Drew Barrymore as Akima, Korso’s co-pilot and Cale’s inevitable love interest, and Janeane Garafolo as the alien Stith, the resident weapons expert on Korso’s ship, the Valkyrie).
But all that’s mostly incidental and more or less on the peripheries of what’s so surprising about the film. As a technical achievement, there are very few animated features I can think of that rival this level of visual dynamism; the animation is as lifelike—with meticulous attention paid to its characters’ tiniest gestures—as the best of Disney’s modern renaissance, and the integration of CGI into its hand-drawn images adds a beauty and three dimensionality to them that remains refreshing despite being technically dated.
While it may be hard to believe when one considers the financial failure it experienced when it came out and the popular obliviousness to which it’s been subjected ever since, “Titan A.E.” is every bit as good as Pixar’s “WALL·E” in terms of the richness of its vision of space in the distant future and in the precision of its aesthetic detail.
One unavoidable disappointing element is the soundtrack. Where it could have and should have been an original intergalactic sonic creation, it’s a lackluster grouping of modern alternative rock songs that were maybe somewhat popular a decade ago and don’t age particularly well. The trailers made use of the song “Higher” by Creed (even as a preteen I knew this was troubling), but that thankfully doesn’t appear anywhere in the film or on the official soundtrack. And on the bright side, the score is actually fairly unobtrusive and might even enhance certain high energy sequences (if you can dial your cynicism way down).
But what an achievement this film is—all grievances aside—full of unrealized cultural potential and years of overdue adulation as a landmark in the realm of animated science fiction. When I saw it for the first time a few days ago at the behest of a friend, I was embarrassingly apprehensive before it started, and within 10 minutes, I knew what overlooked movie I would be writing about next.