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Titan A.E.   B

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Writers: Ben Edlund, John August, Joss Whedon (story by Hans Bauer and Randall McCormick)
Cast: Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo, Janeane Garofalo, Tone Loc, Jim Breuer.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's hard to hate a movie that features Janeane Garafalo as a psychotic space kangaroo. Harder still when that movie strikes another blow against the Disney hegemony of singing animals and Broadway schmaltz. Titan A.E., the effort of would-be maverick Don Bluth to carve a new niche in animation, doesn't feel like most feature cartoons these days. It's darker, grittier and has a real edge: more like Japanese anime than the fluff-and-dry stuff we're usually force-fed. That edge makes it very easy to forget the less than groundbreaking storyline they've attached to it.

For opening scene hooks, Titan A.E. has one that can't be beat: the destruction of the entire planet, courtesy of the evil Drej. In the thirtieth century, Earth's scientists have just completed a new ship called the Titan, sporting some sort of mysterious technology that scares the Drej to death. So they sent their mothership to the old home court for a little shake-and-bake, and suddenly humanity is a race of refugees (take that, Armageddon). Fifteen years later, a cynical junkman named Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) is working in an intergalactic scrapyard as his species slowly goes down the drain. His father worked on the Titan Project, but disappeared during the big explosion and hasn't been seen since. Cale's resigned himself to life on the back end until his dad's old friend Korso (Bill Pullman) shows up with a stunning revelation: the Titan escaped Earth's destruction and only he has the key to its location.

From there, we descend into a stunning series of fights, chases, and breakneck escapes as Cale and Korso begin the quest to redeem their species. The influences are easy to spot: Star Wars, Star Trek, even a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica thrown in for good measure. Anime fans will see some similarities as well, especially in Akima (Drew Barrymore), Korso's fiesty pilot and Cale's love interest. And while there's no dancing animals, Korso's zany alien sidekicks are designed for convenient product tie-ins. The screenplay tries to cover up the clichés with a few amusing lines ("Oh, they'll never think to look for us in the ducts"), and none of it's bad, per se, but it's not as new and different as much as the filmmakers pretend. They've essentially swapped one set of stereotypes for another and it starts to feel a little shopworn by the second half.

Bluth makes up for it, however, with the quality of his production and with the sheer visual imagination to realize this story. Like Star Wars, the universe of Titan A.E. is fully developed, a wondrous landscape of alien vistas and fascinating characters for the heroes to interact with. Settings like the planet Shesharim featuring exploding hydrogen trees and the Ice Rings of Tegrin where ships play deadly games of cat-and-mouse form a breathtaking backdrop to all of the action. The story flows easily from the visuals, lending a natural excitement to all of the ensuing mayhem. Titan A.E. also makes full use of animation as a medium. This isn't just a cartoon version of reality; no human cast or crew could duplicate the scenes we see here, and the medium's unique properties are on full display from opening credits to closing reel.

And then there's the aforementioned edginess. Starting with the destruction of the planet, Titan A.E. ventures into some fairly dark territory and never apologizes for it. The sometimes violent chases and gunfights never flinch from showing us the consequences. Innocent bystanders are gunned down and blood leaks from injuries just like in real life, and when one of the bad guys breaks somebody's neck, it comes with such casual suddenness that you're not initially aware it happened. It took a lot of guts to green light something like that, and the filmmakers should be applauded for their efforts.

Titan A.E. is exciting and fun in a 13-year-old skater kind of way. With flashes of brilliance and a lot of hard work, it pulls you in and gives the exact sort of escapism its ads promised. As shopworn as that is, it also helps display how stagnant the Disney formula has become, and gives us some brief flashes into animation's true potential as an art form. That alone is enough to earn its praise. Keep your singing teapots: I'll take psychotic space kangaroos any day of the week.

Review published 06.23.2000.

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