A noble failure for Fox's fledgling animation department, and one of the final nails in Bill Mechanic's coffin, Titan A.E. is a fetching piece of sci-fi animated eye candy. Read all about it in Judge Erick Harper's excellent review.
Several studios have tried for years to break Disney's deadlock on the animation market. 20th Century Fox was no exception. Their attempts to challenge Disney were greatly assisted by talents of the much-respected Don Bluth, and included Anastasia. Titan A.E. represented a last-ditch attempt by Fox to break into the animation market, and its disappointing box office showing was the final nail in the coffin for Fox Animation Studios.
Facts of the Case
In the year 3028, a mysterious alien race called the Drej destroys the Earth. Just before the final destruction, a handful of humans escape into space. Among the survivors is a boy named Cale. He grows up in space, in a society that shuns humans as the trash of the galaxy. When next we see Cale, he is working in a backwater salvage facility, a sort of interplanetary junkyard where he cuts apart the hulls of massive derelict space vessels for scrap.
His life changes when he meets Korso, captain of the Valkyrie, a deep space trading ship. Korso knew Cale's father, Professor Sam Tucker. He has sought Cale out to tell him about his father's plan to provide a new future for humanity. The key to the future is a mysterious, massive vessel called the Titan. Cale's father built it and hid it in deep space. Cale holds the key to its location literally in the palm of his hand.
Cale decides to join Korso and his crew, including a lovely, mysterious human girl named Akima. Together they set out to uncover the truth about Cale's past, his destiny, and the very future of the human race.
It has been said that the greatest strength of animation is to show us things that can't be shown any other way, to show us fantastic images that can exist only in an artist's imagination. Titan A.E. comes through in spades. From a watery planet with explosive floating hydrogen trees to planetary rings made up of giant ice crystals, Don Bluth (All Dogs Go to Heaven, Anastasia, An American Tail) and his team bring us amazing visions that have never been seen on screen before. They do this with a combination of traditional two-dimensional cell animation and more sophisticated CGI three-dimensional animation. Other movies have tried to combine these two forms of animation with mixed results; often the result is cardboard cutout characters standing in front of dazzling, lifelike backdrops. Titan A.E. is an exception, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the two types of animation blended together. Through the use of three-dimensional "virtual sets," Bluth is able to create camera movements that feel completely natural, a marked contrast with the very static setups used in earlier animated works. The end result of all this is a fully realized, gorgeous universe where the viewers can lose themselves in the wonderful sights.
The sense of wonder is assisted by some very good performances by the voice actors. Matt Damon (Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting, The Rainmaker) avoids the over- and under-acting pitfalls that often plague first-time voice actors in animated films. His performance is believably alive and vivid, and hits exactly the right notes. Other good performances come from John Leguizamo (Summer of Sam, Doctor Dolittle, A Pyromaniac's Love Story) as Gune, a sort of hyperactive interstellar Peter Lorre, and Nathan Lane (The Lion King, Isn't She Great, Love's Labours Lost) as Preed, an intellectual, snobbish alien gunslinger.
The DVD presentation is overall very good. The video images are sharp and clear, and colors appear to be solid and fully saturated. Colors, even electric blues and garish reds, do not seem to bleed or bloom. I detected a few isolated instances of minor edge enhancement, but nothing serious. I really found very little fault in the DVD video.
Titan A.E. comes with both a DTS audio track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The DTS track is simply outstanding. It fills the room with sound and puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Directional effects are excellent, with spacecraft flying all around the viewer, from left to right and front to back. This track is also very well-mixed; dialogue and the musical score are clear and distinct, never drowned out by sound effects but never overpowering them either. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very good as well, also evenly mixed and with good directional separation and outstanding clarity, but sounds weak and underpowered when compared to the DTS track.
Fox has labeled Titan A.E. as a "Special Edition," and it is worthy of that title. There is a nice assortment of supplementary material accompanying this movie. The flagship extra feature is, as always, the commentary track. This one features producer/directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. It is interesting for the most part, including some insight into the unique challenges inherent in doing an animated film of this scope, as well as the challenges in combining 2D and 3D animation so successfully. They also drop a few interesting comments about the challenges of working with studio execs and test audiences—just providing us with a little more insight into how Hollywood works, of course. I also found it interesting that they shot a lot of reference footage of the actors playing out the scenes in live-action before going to work on the animation.
The next piece of extra content on the disc is a Fox Kids Special entitled "The Quest for the Titan." This feature runs for 21 minutes. It provides some interesting details of the process of making Titan A.E., but is clearly tailored to the short attention spans of today's video-game addicted youth. However, it did go beyond the usual promotional fluff found in a lot of DVD featurettes, and was on the whole entertaining and informative.
Four deleted scenes of various lengths are included on this DVD. They are in various stages of completion, and in a couple of cases are merely extended versions of scenes that did make it into the finished picture. In any case, it is nice to see them included.
Rounding out the extra content are a collection of four trailers and TV spots, a still gallery featuring a whopping 107 shots of various concept art and storyboards, DVD-ROM content, and a music video. The video is for the song "Over my Head," by the band Lit. It is basically unremarkable late '90s pop, and sounds like the band members grew up listening to groups like Metallica, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam without knowing why.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I liked this movie, all is not perfect. There are a number of holes in the logic of the plot that I still haven't been able to figure out. First of all, If Cale's father had this ship, why didn't he use it right away, instead of hiding it in the middle of nowhere for his son to find? Also, and I don't want to give away the ending here, but either the total population of Drej in the universe is very small, or the end of this movie basically solves nothing. Finally, there are two major plot twists involving the Korso character that come completely out of the blue and are very unsatisfying.
Even more unsatisfying was the ease with which characters dealt with dangerous or potentially life-threatening situations. A character gets shot? No problem, all they need is rest and some time to recover. A character gets captured by the Drej? No problem, because their language is apparently easily understood by humans, and humans are easily able to fly Drej ships. Finally, the filmmakers committed the cardinal sin of cheapshot filmmaking—they included sequences where terrible things happen to characters, only to have the audience find out that it was all a dream. To be fair, there are some action sequences that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, but the effectiveness of these is undercut by the many perilous situations which are resolved with pat, easy answers that seem to come out of nowhere.
There were some acting performances that I found disappointing as well. Specifically, Drew Barrymore (E.T., Charlie's Angels, Ever After) never really brought life to her role as Akima. I've enjoyed her in some of her live-action work, notably The Wedding Singer and Ever After, but her voice here sounds thicker and lispier than usual. Bill Pullman (Independence Day, Spaceballs, While You Were Sleeping) does a passable job as Korso, but he tends to fall into animation overacting mode, especially after a major plot twist involving his character is revealed. Late in the movie, there were a couple of instances where Pullman became positively Shatner-esque in his overacting.
For all the excellent technical work done by Bluth and his crew, there are a couple of glitches that I found distracting. In the middle of some of his great camera moves around the "virtual set," I noticed what I can only call a drop in frame rate, similar to playing a computer game that slightly exceeds one's processor/memory capabilities. Bluth and Goldman did not explain these instances in the commentary track. I can only assume that they are errors with the film itself, and not with the DVD or my player.
The only complaint I have with the extra content is the absence of talent files on members of the cast and crew. While this is not a big deal, it is something that we have come to expect and a nice feature to have.
Fans of science fiction or animation will want to take a look at this movie. While there are some glaring faults in character and plot, it is a mostly enjoyable trip with some very nice eye candy. If nothing else, it is a welcome change to see an American animated movie where the characters don't feel the need to break into daffy songs every five minutes.
The movie and all involved are acquitted. Fox Home Video is commended for a very good DVD presentation.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Directors' Commentary Track
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