Overlooked Movie Monday: Titan A.E.

by Phil Fava on November 22, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

Titan A.E. Cale Matt DamonThat “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.

Titan A.E. Cale Matt DamonThe 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).

Drej ship Titan A.E. 2000But 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).

Cale Korso Titan A.E. Damon Pullman 2000But 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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ian McFarland November 22, 2010 at 7:46 am

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I was also a pre-teen when this came out, and having really enjoying it at that age, I have a soft spot for it. But it’s outright absurd to consider this one of the most “under-appreciated films of all time movies of all time.”

Since when has the over-used plot of one young dude, with the help of a wizened old man and a spunky young woman, setting out on a quest to save the world been considered an “innately profound archetype of heroism and adventure”? This movie is covered in cliché, has nothing interesting in a Sci-Fi sense (the bad guys are bad and want to kill humans! How provoking!) And while I’ll grant you that there’s some interesting stuff going on in here visually, especially for its time; to consider this a superior to ‘WALL-E’ in any sense is just looking for trouble.

I’m an animation dork, and I’ve always been rooting for Don Bluth. And, furthermore, I do like this movie. But you’re taking an authentically enjoyable piece of cheese and comparing it to Filet mignon here. Stop trying to elevate this non-classic to something it’s not and just enjoy it for what it is.

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2 Alan Rapp November 22, 2010 at 9:31 am

Careful there Ian, we might just have to take away your Joss Whedon appreciation card. I’ll agree Phil is going a little too far in his praise, but I’ll also admit to owning a copy of this flick on DVD. Along with Bluth’s animation its got some great humor punched up by both Ben Edlund and Joss Whedon.

And Phil, I can’t believe you didn’t mention the “Wake Angels” scene, one of my favorite sequences!

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3 Phil Fava November 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

Was the over-used plot of one young dude with the help of a wizened old man and a spunky young woman setting out on a quest to save the town/country/world/galaxy any more or less groundbreaking in “Star Wars”? What about in “Lord of the Rings”? For that matter, what about in the context of ANY adventure story? The point is not that this film’s specific arc is original (in fact, I concede right off the bat that it’s not), but that it uses it as a template for a lot of originality in terms of its vision and execution. Innately profound because it cashes in on those same archetypes of heroism and adventure that many great fantasy/adventure stories do, which affect us on a universal, Jungian level, and are not necessarily contingent on more sophisticated intellectual interests. Also, it’s a cartoon. How many classic animated films can you think of that don’t approach things from this angle?

And I never said it was a better film than “WALL-E.” Never. Not once. What I said was: “…’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.” “[E]very bit as good” is not the same thing as “superior.” I would go on, but I think you get the point.

And if you’re honestly prepared to write off this particular animated film and disqualify it as a classic because it uses classic tropes and is cheesy, you better be prepared to do the same thing to just about every other animated “classic” this side of “Snow White.” It’s not “2001,” but it unequivocally deserves mention in the same category as some of the other animated blockbusters people have been chomping at the bit to praise and praise again.

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4 Phil Fava November 22, 2010 at 9:51 am

I’m sorry, Alan. But you can only say so much about a film before you want to kill yourself and go to bed. Y’know what I mean?

But since you mentioned it, that scene is pretty fucking glorious.

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5 Jean November 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I adore Titan A.E. – have it on VHS, and now I must search for the DVD! Thanks, Phil, for the reminder of a fun animated ride. :)

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