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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (2000)

11. Titan A.E.
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

After the success of “Anastasia,” Don Bluth had established Fox Animation Studio as a worthy adversary to the unstoppable Disney. Hoping to build on that success, Bluth and his team immediately went to work on a follow-up. “Anastasia” took certain cues from the Disney formula, with its musical, romantic story of a princess being pursued by a devious villain. Their next theatrical release would be in a radically different style: a sci-fi action/adventure that began with the destruction of Earth. The resulting film, “Titan A.E.,” was set to be a major release. There were the expected merchandising tie-ins, with toys, comics, and books. It was not to be. “Titan A.E.” was a notorious bomb, led to the destruction of Fox Animation Studio, and would be the end of Don Bluth’s career.

In the year 3028, Earth is targeted by a powerful alien race known as the Drej, creatures made of pure energy. The Drej succeed in destroying Earth, tossing humanity to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, despite the best efforts of scientist Sam Tucker. Tucker’s greatest invention, a ship called the Titan that could lead to the recreation of Earth, is lost after the destruction. 15 years later, Sam’s son Cale is seeked out by team of adventurers looking for the Titan. All the while, they are pursued by the Drej and undermined by the shaky loyalties within the ship.

During the early days of Bluth’s career as a feature filmmaker, he was known for pushing the envelope in terms of content. “The Secret of NIMH” was darker and more violent then anything Disney was making at the time. “The Land Before Time” had its edgier tone softened during post-production. This desire to add some maturity to American animation got lost during Bluth’s wilderness years in the nineties. Now with the backing of a major studio, the director was able to create a project unlike anything else he had handled before. “Titan A.E.” was rated PG but, if it had been live-action, easily would have gotten a PG-13. Earth is destroyed, ships are blown up, people are shot, and wounds bleed. At one point, a character has their neck snapped on-screen. There’s even some brief nudity. Moreover, the characters are cynical, uncertain, greedy, and disloyal. “Titan A.E.” has a tone closer to anime then what audience were used to seeing from American studios.

The film’s darker tone and edgier content may put it to closer to what was coming out of Japan then America. As far as visuals go, “Titan A.E.” still looks like a Don Bluth movie. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. As usual, the animation is gorgeous. Though characterized by darker visuals, with plenty of deep browns and blacks, the details are florid. The interior of the ships and satellite are fully painted and realized, creating a lived-in sense. The character animation is lively but realistic. As in “Anastasia,” the colors are bright and brilliant. The only down side of this is the typical Don Bluth-style designs are still usually cute, which contrasts badly with the film’s darker tone.

You’ll notice when I refer to the animation, I mean the traditional animation. Ever since “Thumbelina,” Bluth had made the habit of sneaking in some CGI for the occasional background object. The blend never truly worked but always made up such a small part of the film that it wasn’t worth commenting on. In “Titan A.E.,” the director doubles down on the amount of CG. All of the space ships in the film are brought to life with computer generated imagery. As this is a sci-fi story, there’s lots of scenes with space ships. It’s not just that the CGI hasn’t aged well in the last fifteen years. Mostly, it’s distracting, constantly cutting back and forth between the two styles. The characters never seem to take place in the same universe as the ships. Moreover, because of the then-limitations of the technology, the ships and other CGI elements lack the detail that the rest of the film has. This wouldn’t be an issue today but, back in the year 2000, hand-drawn animation was still far more capable of creating worlds and details then computers. The awkward combination makes “Titan A.E.” visually uneven.

“Titan A.E.” was obviously trying to show the public that animation just isn’t for kids. You’d think the movie’s grittier visual style, darker storyline, and edgier content would clue people in. Instead, the film also uses its soundtrack to establish its attitude. Aside from Graeme Revell’s relatively decent score, the soundtrack is full of what I guess you’d call alternative rock. It’s a weird mixture of nu metal, pop punk, Britrock, and even a little dance pop courtesy of Jamiroquai. The music is inserted constantly, all throughout the film. The music roots the futuristic film in a very dated time and place. It’s also distracting. It’s hard to take a chase seriously when that clown from Powerman 5000 is groaning on the soundtrack. Only twice does the music work in anyway. When Cale is introduced to his love interest Akima, the dreamy “Down to Earth” by Luscious Jackson plays, which establishes the right town. During the scene where Cale is finally allowed to fly the ship, “It’s My Turn to Fly” by The Urge plays, which is obviously on the nose but works fairly well with the scene. Mostly, the music takes the audience out of the story. And that’s coming from a huge Splashdown fan.

It had been a while before Don Bluth had directed anything you could call an action film, if he ever has. “Anastasia” had its share of exciting sequence though, so it's natural the filmmaker would want to expand on that. “Titan A.E.” features plenty of shooting and explosion. An early scene has the Drej chasing Korso and Cale through a ship, concluding with the escape pod exploding into space. Probably the best action scene has the Drej pursuing the heroes on a planet where balls of explosive gas float above the watery surface. Naturally, those volatile spheres come into play. Other action scenes are less effective. A sequence set in an atmosphere full of huge ice crystals is hampered badly by the plastic CGI effects. The close-quarter struggles and gun fights never feel like they have very high stakes. As it is in most every way, “Titan A.E.” is uneven as an action flick.

“Titan A.E.” attempts to deepen its story with the subplot about Cale’s father. Sam Tucker died when Earth was destroyed. He sent his son off on another spaceship, insuring his survival. Despite this, the boy resents the memory of his father, feeling like his promises of saving humanity were empty. Yet Korso, who knew Sam Tucker, constantly tells Sam how similar the two are. As the film goes on, and Cale learns more about the Titan project, he feels a renewed bond with his father. This is egged on during a scene where Cale bounds with some kids on a drifter colony, who also have a story about their father and his connection with Earth. By the end of the film, Cale has become a father of sorts too, when he helps re-create Earth. However, the theme never adds very much to the movie. But at least the film isn’t teaching kids a lesson about sharing or believing in themselves or anything.

Something worth liking about “Titan A.E.” is its array of alien creatures and cultures. Preed is an Akrennian, a spindly creature with a canine-like head and webbing between his arms. Stith is some sort of kangaroo, lizard, rat creature with oversized legs. Gune is a funny little creature, looking something like a shelless turtle or a bug-eyed toad. There’s plenty of odd creature and species glimpse in the crowds and supporting roles. Some of them resemble Earth creatures, like the bug-like chef or a horse-like prisoner, but others are stranger, alien-seeming critters. The best of which are the central threat, the Dreg. Beings of pure energy, who fly around in crystalline ships, they glow bright blue, moving with a mechanical gait, and have computer-like faces. An interesting, far-out sci-fi concept, the Drej are genuinely threatening and probably the most memorable thing about the film. The film gives us glimpse at the alien worlds, with their own cultures and barter systems. In this regard, “Titan A.E.” is good sci-fi.

As with “Anastasia,” “Titan A.E.” has an all-star voice cast. The cast is mostly solid with a few exceptions. It’s easy to imagine Matt Damon as Cale in a live-action “Titan A.E.” Working only with his voice, Damon does fine but occasionally sounds bored. Though it’s a bit hard to buy Drew Barrymore as Akima, an obviously Asian character, she is actually quite good in the part, imbuing a lot of strength and attitude. (Akima is also the most recent example of an inappropriately sexy female character in a Don Bluth cartoon, though it’s far less out of place in an edgier work like this.) Bill Pullman’s coarse baritone is nicely suited to Korso, a character with ambiguous loyalties. John Leguizamo affects a weird croak as Gune, which is strangely effective. Nathan Lane gets cast against type as the treacherous Preed and adapts surprisingly well to the part. Janeane Garofalo seems like another odd choice for Stith, the gunner. Instead of stretching herself, Garofalo adapts the alien to her established type. She even complains about grad school in one scene! Even supporting roles, like Cale’s dad or alien mentor Tek, are filled by recognizable voices, such as Ron Perlman and Tone Loc. Once again, Bluth and his team show a good ear for voices, even when it comes to name actors.

Even with a capable cast, the characters of “Titan A.E.” never feel especially nuanced. The eventual betrayals of Korso and Preed come out of nowhere. Korso’s motivation for betraying all of mankind is especially underwritten. He says it's for money but the Drej don’t seem to have any understanding of cash. Despite being good people, Stith and Gund continue to work with Korso even after he’s revealed as a villain. The Drej’s motivation for wiping out humanity is also kept intentionally vague. They fear our “potential,” which makes destroying our planet seem like slightly like an overreaction. The romance between Cale and Akima seems to happen simply because the main hero and the hot girl have to get together. Their chemistry is strictly manufactured. Two characters are seemingly killed off before returning in clumsy, ill-explained ways. Well, Akima’s death cheat is clumsy. Gund’s survival flat-out isn’t explained. One scene he’s near death, the next he’s fine. For all its attempts to be a more mature film, “Titan A.E.’s’ characterization still feels very shallow at times.

All of its uneven qualities aside, “Titan A.E.” at least builds towards a solid conclusion. Separate from their team, Akima and Cale rebuilds a ship from scrap, which is a fun montage. The reveal of what exactly the Titan can do pays off, when the heroes discovers tubes of genetic codes. Alliances are made and broken. Betrayals are revealed. Cale and his team make a last stand against the Drej, resulting in at least one redemptive sacrifice. The way the Drej are defeated is also clever, though even a kid is likely to see it coming. Apparently Joss Whedon did some work on the screenplay, which explains the jokey pre-credits scene where Cale dubs the New Earth “Bob.”

The disastrous box office performance of “Titan A.E.” not only killed Fox Animation Studios and Don Bluth’s career, it was a further sign that traditional animation was on its way out. In a few years time, hand-drawn animation would have no place in theaters, totally overshadowed by CGI. Or maybe the mainstream public had no interest in science-fiction cartoons. Disney’s similarly themed “Treasure Planet” would be release two years later and also bomb spectacularly. Though undercooked at times, and hindered by some unusual creative decisions, “Titan A.E.” isn’t exactly bad either. It deserved a better box office performance, at the very least, and its not surprising that the film has developed a following of sorts. It’s neither a high point nor a low point for the director. [Grade: B-]

With the failure of "Titan A.E.," the dissolution of Fox Animation Studios, and the public's continued indifference to traditional animation, it would appear that Don Bluth's career is over. You still hear the occasional rumble about a "Dragon's Lair" movie, but it seems unlikely that will ever be realized. In 2009, Bluth and Gary Goldman were credited with directing a short called "Gift of the Hoopoe," despite not actually directing it. With hand-drawn theatrical animation hibernating, if not outright extinct, Bluth seems to occupy himself these days by directing plays. Despite his wildly uneven career, it's still a bummer that Don Bluth has so totally disappeared from the film world. Maybe he should hook up with those crazy folks in Europe and Japan. Or maybe he's happy to be retired. Either way, the classics he directed are likely to continue to endure.

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