Suggesting a fresh direction for science fiction moviemaking while adhering to commercially tried-and-true formulas, “Titan A.E.” carefully — sometimes too carefully — balances a style keyed to older kids and teens with a notably serious fidelity to classical sci-fi storytelling. Even with considerable unevenness in tone and attitude, massive ani project co-helmed by longtime collaborators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman marks a huge improvement over pair’s last work, the miscalculated “Anastasia,” while establishing Fox Animation Studios as a significant source of state-of-the-art animation for the bigscreen. With no genre competition in the nearby theatrical solar system, pic has hungry auds all to itself, and they’ll come back for repeated visits to feast on the rich displays of imagined worlds.
While recent sci-fi efforts have been seriously marred by, among other factors, an insultingly cartoonish approach to live-action characters and situations, “Titan A.E.” neutralizes this problem by animating its space opera.
Much of the artwork is unusually detailed and accomplished, to frequently powerful effect. Level of craft is in tandem with an unexpectedly strong story, drawing on traditions from sci-fi lit masters Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein and Roger Zelazny, while liberally borrowing bits younger auds will know, from the “Alien” series to the “Star Wars” saga.
Result is a canny attraction for genre purists, hard-core ani-heads and the mass aud for galactic adventure.
At the time of its release (1997), “Anastasia” seemed to be Bluth and Goldman’s announcement that they were putting aside the silly ‘toons of their youth (“All Dogs Go to Heaven,” “An American Tail”), but ill-conceived alterations of Russian history and rusty dialogue proved to be quicksand for the pic.
New project retains “Anastasia’s” serious aspirations — as well, alas, as dialogue that is no less rusty — while signifying a return to Bluth and Goldman’s original interest in sci-fi.
Meaning of “A.E.” in the title soon becomes apparent in opening reel, as Earth in the year 3028 is being engulfed in an ominous sandstorm in advance of the invading race, the Drej. Young Cale (voiced by Alex D. Linz) is shepherded by his father (Ron Perlman) to an escape ship, forever separating father and son — but not before Dad gives him a ring that obviously will be the key to the future.
The boy flees from Earth while Dad commandeers Titan, an enormous, bulbous ship that has been his lifelong project, into deep space, just before the Drej detonate Earth (in the first of several spectacular effects sequences).
Fifteen years later, After Earth, Cale at 20 (now voiced by Matt Damon) is a jaded blue-collar worker on a salvage station. Uneasily between teen awkwardness and adulthood, he’s forever getting himself into trouble.
Tough, intimidating Korso (Bill Pullman) rescues Cale from a fracas with nasty creatures, and involves him on “a dangerous mission to save the human race,” which is seemingly headed toward extinction.
Korso proves his authenticity by showing Cale how his ring works — illuminating a genetically encoded map in Cale’s hand that indicates the location of the well-hidden Titan ship. A wildly narrow escape from invading Drej warriors, whose blue coating encases what Korso explains is “pure energy,” puts Cale on Korso’s ship, the Valkerie.
Story has thus far insisted on tossing in irritating comic relief in the form of the salvage station’s motor-mouth cook (Jim Breuer), and the strategy continues on the new vessel with turtle-like Gune (John Leguizamo) as navigator; wily, worm-like second-in-command Preed (Nathan Lane) and super-cynical weapons freak Stith (Janeane Garofalo).
Early comic stunts, though, are markedly toned down as the serious and complex plot takes over, and as Cale develops a testy relationship with pretty, gutsy Akima (Drew Barrymore).Disaster nearly wipes out the team on the new planet, Sesharrim — a wonderfully surreal creation whose surface is liquid and is covered with egg-like hydrogen “trees” — where friendly, bat-type allies and the Valkerie crew are pounced on by a Drej force, leading to the kind of chase that’s possible only in animation.
The capture of Cale and Akima, who is eventually released on a distant slave ship in a subplot out of John Huston, leads to a Drej attack on Titan itself. Some narrative turns become dubious at this point: Cale’s escape from the Drej mother ship (looking suspiciously like Darth Vader’s mask) is much too facile, and a pause in the action for Cale to take over the controls of the Valkerie to the sounds of sub-par rock ‘n’ roll (one of several mediocre tunes inserted) is pure pandering to the teen demo.
Pic’s supreme ani achievement is the Ice Rings of Tigrin, where Titan is protected by a dizzying web of enormous ice crystals, and where animation dramatically heightens the action with use of space and reflection.
Climax on board Titan — which houses the genetic material of all Earth flora and fauna, and thus, the building blocks of a new planet — is relatively anticlimactic but effective.Seven minutes of closing credits reveal the complexity of the project. While the preceding action is remarkably plot heavy, the abundant plot turns whiz by in pic’s relentless, audience-grabbing pace. Despite occasional awkwardness in character motion, viewers will be swept away by the luxuriant creation of alternate universes.
But there’s some faltering voice work from Damon (who’s hardly a vet at this sort of thing) and Barrymore, whose persistent Valley Girl voice has long been her weakest asset.
Pullman, however, is in full command as pic’s most complex character, while Leguizamo’s sometimes grating, high-pitched voice is almost unrecognizable. Lane has a ball playing a Machiavellian alien, and Garofalo does only a slight variation on her cynical persona.
In an unusual and worthy manner for an animated feature, widescreen format is employed and fully exploited throughout. Tech work is exemplary, and sometimes astonishing.