Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: Titan A.E.


Writer's Note (2-11-18): Some of you may be like "Whooooa, I was wondering where this post disappeared to!" while some of you might be wondering where the heck this brand-new but not-new post came from.

This was one of a series of posts I had to pull from the blog temporarily so I could update it to my current standards. While the core of the review is the same, you'll find some new content in here as well.

So to old readers and new ones alike, hope you enjoy! And rejoice to all you out there who were sad to see this one vanish abruptly. Sorry about that! Won't be happening again. :)

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Genre: Action-Adventure, Sci Fi, Space Opera
Year Released: 2000
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Running Time: 95 mins.
Rating: PG; contains some rear male nudity (and a chick in a towel)

This review will contain spoilers.


You have been warned.

The Premise

In the distant future, Earth has established contact and made alliances and enemies among alien races. Then the Drej arrive out of nowhere, easily decimating Earth before humanity can pose a threat to their plans of galactic domination.

Caught in the chaos is a young Cale Tucker, whose father has been working for years on a secret project known only as "Project Titan." Cale is taken to safety onto a shuttle with a number of what will be some of Earth's last survivors as he watches his father take off in Project Titan to ensure it doesn't fall into Drej hands. Project Titan is, allegedly, a terraforming ship, a product of human ingenuity and survival instincts... and a key reason why the Drej are so terrified of humanity. When the Drej blow up Earth in the hopes to prevent that same ingenuity from working against them in the future... Project Titan also becomes humanity's last hope of reclaiming a planet to call home.

Cale grows up jaded and lost, part of a quickly-dying race who are generally ignored or mocked by others.

But purposeless drifting quickly turns into a life-changing purpose when his father's old comrade, a former military man named Joseph Korso, tracks Cale down. Korso reveals that Cale holds the key to humanity's only hope for a future: a map to Project Titan. Now Cale must venture deep into space to locate Project Titan and rescue what remains of humankind... before the Drej finish what they started.

Sounds cool, right? Heck yeah I thought so too. So much so that ever since I saw the first trailers for it as a kid, I was overwhelmed with a desire to go see it in theaters LIKE RIGHT AWAY PLEASE.

The only problem was, I was equally overwhelmed by this weird perception that my parents would think it was too violent for me... for some reason. To this day, I'm not sure why I had that idea, but the fact was, I was too fearful to ever even ask. So I never saw it.

Until I found it on Netflix ten years later.

It's time to review Titan A.E.

The Visuals

Even as a kid, I noticed how similar Cale looked to another Don Bluth male lead, Dmitri from Anastasia. Back then, the similarity was a plus: Dmitri was a long-time animation crush of mine, and I had more than enough room in my little pre-teen heart for Blonde Dmitri too.

When I saw the film as an adult, however, the similarities were... almost uncomfortable.

Seriously, I dare someone to tell me these two are not the same guy with a different box of hair dye.

I suppose you could fault Titan A.E. for "Same-Face Syndrome," but since that's a hotly-debated subject nowadays1, which artists far more qualified than me have discussed, I won't necessarily dock it points just for that.

Still, I was shocked to find a fair amount of criticism angled toward this movie's character designs. Katie Wendt, an animator and character designer, asserts that Titan A.E. "failed to connect to audiences due to... generic character design."2 And she's being polite next to her colleague and former classmate, Magnolia Porter, who says that "[Titan A.E.] is a movie we were forced to watch in my character design class as examples of some of the worst character designs of all time..."3

'Worst character designs of all time'? Ouch. Honestly, I was a little put out when I read that. How dare they attack my beloved Un-Dmitri? I had to dig deeper.

Later in the same post, Porter examines just what makes these character designs so lackluster, using Akima, Cale's love interest, as an example. Porter points out how none of Akima's details tell us anything about her occupation, her origins, or even her personality. "[I] guess she’s a… mechanic or pilot or whatever… who wants to find earth? [G]ood thing absolutely none of that is apparent in her appearance, [or] she might have accidentally been interesting to look at."4

Titan A.E., 2000 20th Century Fox
Porter's assessment may sound harsh, but I have to admit, it's also accurate. Akima is very pretty (I always liked her dyed-purple bangs), but there's nothing about her costume, demeanor, haircut (and color) that tell us anything about her at a glance. She has a belt with a firearm, and that's about it. There's nothing to hint that she spent her childhood on a human "colony" that's little more than a conglomeration of spare spaceship parts, or how her life before piloting for Korso mainly consisted of dreaming of a better life while performing routine maintenance on her home so her family didn't get sucked out into space. It would have been wonderful to see these details rather than being told them.

Okay, okay, so the character designs could use some work. But how does the rest of the movie look?

I'd give it a solid "Faiiiiir, I guess." Titan A.E., like Anastasia (both distributed by 20th Century Fox), mostly consists of CGI backgrounds and 2D characters. Much of Titan's CGI has not aged well--but I'll make a big exception for the terraforming sequence at the end, which was cool to watch and impressive given the time this movie released.

However, unlike Anastasia (which was released three years earlier), most of the CGI did not mesh well with the 2D characters. Anastasia had its own share of early-CGI growing pains, but at least most of the CGI was designed to blend or to purposefully stand out from the 2D characters. The same could not be said for Titan A.E.

The Music

Much like the movie's visuals, the soundtrack was less than fitting. Most of its notable tracks are pop punk that clearly dates the film to the late 90's-early 2000's. Of these songs, almost all feel generic and unsuited for what should have been a sweeping space opera. While I'm a fan of pop punk, it inundated the movie, leaving the soundtrack feeling gimmicky and out-of-place. I would've loved to hear more techno songs and electronic instruments--something to really sell this as a sci fi world. Or, by contrast, any orchestral epic arrangements akin to the Star Wars or Star Trek soundtracks are always welcome in my book.

Even the pop punk tune "Over My Head" by Lit, the song used most often for Titan A.E.'s trailers, wasn't used to its full potential. The song is pretty typical (but catchy) pop punk fare about feeling completely in over your head and dreaming of a better life. So, did they put this song at the beginning of the film, when we're first getting to know what kind of a man Cale has grown up into, when he's stuck in a dead-end job, alone, ignored, and discriminated against by his alien boss and coworkers? No, of course not! That'd make too much sense.

Instead we hear the iconic tune placed near the end of the film during a montage where Cale and Akima are fixing up Akima's space-hulk hometown. I guess they thought it'd be a good place since Cale and Akima are working together in the final push to find Project Titan. But the song has nothing to do with the tone or message of the scene where it plays! In fact, this is the point in the movie when Cale finally isn't overwhelmed by existential crisis, when Cale actually feels confident and full of purpose! What a waste!

The Writing

Titan A.E. had its share of struggles, but it was the writing that broke my heart hardest. This film had so much promise! I loved the idea of a movie about humanity trying to pick up the pieces long after Earth was gone, toppled from their status and wandering, homeless. I always got the sense from the trailers that this film was going to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia with an angsty cusp-of-manhood protagonist trying to eke out his living and prove himself a man while trying to save the human race.

Unfortunately... Titan A.E. was not that story.

Characters made abrupt shifts in motivation for little if any plausible reason (Cale goes from "I really don't care about what happens to humanity" to "I have to save the human race!" nearly overnight). Likeable characters were relegated to the "bad guy for no reason other than plot twist" roles. It was a mess!

I couldn't tell if a lot of this story's problems were from bits being left on the cutting room floor... or if there were never any "bits" to begin with.

This make far more sense in light of the film's development: it suffered from a painful stop-and-go production that would probably make any film creator's skin crawl.

It began with a game of script-and-writer hot potato, which ultimately burned director Art Vitello so badly that he left the project less than a year after it had begun.5

Now directorless and with $30 million already down the drain, the film fell into the laps of Bluth and Goldman--that is, if you could call it a film at all at this point; it still had no script. Still, this was right after Bluth and Goldman had finished Anastasia (which likely explains the similarities in character designs and animation choices). Anastasia had done well at the box office, the highest-grossing of Bluth and Goldman's nine films so far.6 If anyone could make something out of this spoiled tater, they could.

But Titan A.E.'s woes didn't end there. Fox Animation Studios itself was floundering. After losing 200-some staff and the Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman/CEO Bill Mechanic,7 Fox Animation closed its doors a mere week and a half after Titan A.E. released; the film had lost Fox an icy-cold $50 million.8

The Conclusion

You know what's truly tragic? It wouldn't have taken much to turn this lackluster film into a classic. And while I could (and will) write an entire article about the how's and why's, here's the short version.

Titan A.E. tried to be a plot-centric story when it was begging to be a character-driven one. Rather than focus on throwing in edgy plot twists, the writers needed to recognize all the good things they already had going and focus on those.

And they had a lot going for them! The premise was interesting and the characters were entertaining and likable. In fact, the crew interactions and group chemistry are great throughout the film... until about the halfway point, when everything starts to fall apart.

In the beginning of the film, Korso is a satisfying, grounded mentor to Cale. Korso will shoot straight with you. He's a bold, no-nonsense kind of guy and a likable captain; you can see how he's gotten this ragtag crew to work together this long. But it all gets erased when we abruptly discover halfway through the film that Korso has been a villain the whole time! There are no prior hints or foreshadowing, and in the span of two scenes, Korso goes from a confident captain to a threatening, ranting dictator with no discipline over himself or his crew.

Or take another crewmember, Preed. He starts the film as a snarky, sweet-talking character any lover of rogue-types would adore. He seems like the kind of guy who always talks trash about you but will be the first to have your back. Until, just like with Korso, he receives a personality transplant because the plot demanded he be a villain. Suddenly the suave and dry-humored Preed becomes bloodthirsty and completely callous toward the crewmates he'd gone out of his way to rescue earlier.

This character whiplash is so jarring, I can only assume it was a result of the film's agonizing production process. It's a harsh reminder that focusing on the wrong kind of conflict can destroy the story you're trying to tell.

This film is not an inherently bad film; its characters are not inherently bad characters. Unfortunately, neither story nor characters realized their full potential.

It's always sad to see a promising movie bomb. Perhaps if the film and studio hadn't been on such rocky ground, we could have seen a really special and intimate story about a boy who lost his father to a dream for the future. Perhaps we would have gotten some stellar visuals and a film worthy of resting on our shelf alongside our other Star-titles.

And while I'm sad Titan A.E. didn't live up to its potential, I'm trying to look on the bright side. After all, the story's potential is still there, waiting. Maybe someday I can create the story I imagined when I first saw the title "Titan A.E." splash across my TV screen.

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Notes and References:
  1. T B Skyen, "SAME FACE SYNDROME: is it a good art-criticism?" [sic], YouTube video, 22:25, May 23, 2017.
  2. Katie Wendt, "Titan A.E. Redesign Project," Katie Wendt (blog), April 10, 2009, accessed February 15, 2018.
  3. Magnolia Porter. "The Only Thing I Remember About Titan A.E. is That They Name the Planet Bob at the End and in Retrospect This is the Worst Joke I Ever Heard, So I Probably Agree with All of This," Magnolia Porter (Tumblr), November 5, 2011, accessed February 15, 2018.
  4. Porter, "The Only Thing I Remember About Titan A.E."
  5. Evan Backes. "Why Does It Take Ten Years!?!" Animation World Network, AWN, Inc., April 1, 2001, accessed February 15, 2018.
  6. Amid Amidi, "Don Bluth and Gary Goldman's 'Anastasia' Is 20 Years Old Today," Cartoon Brew, Cartoon Brew, LLC, November 21, 2017, accessed February 15, 2018.
  7. Brian Linder. "Fox Animation Studios Closes Its Doors." IGN. Ziff Davis, LLC, June 27, 2000, accessed February 15, 2018.
  8. "Titan A.E." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, February 9, 2018, accessed February 15, 2018.
Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Special thanks to Curtis Bell and his movie review blog Iridium Eye for the sweet new review format!

jo (3)

From Him, To Him

15 comments:

  1. Great job on that review. I hadn't seen Titan AE since I was in 6th grade.

    Also, thanks for the shout out and crediting my review format for Iridium Eye! :D

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    1. Thanks, man! Thank you again for letting me use your format. It makes it look so much better than my first movie review!

      I actually didn't get a chance to watch Titan A.E. until I was in my 20's, and due to life drama, I actually didn't even get to finish it! Watching it all the way through was... a very different experience than my first viewing, unfortunately. It had so much potential! My biggest regret with this review is I didn't have enough time to go into what I would have changed about the film. Maybe that'll have to be a future post. :)

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  2. No problem. I do like how you used some of my elements, but added your own format to differentiate it enough to make it your own.

    Is that so? I've had that similar feeling whenever I watched something I haven't seen for a long time. Sometimes, things get better if it's aged well enough or still just as good like Texhnolyze after not seeing it for over a decade. Then there's other times where it gets worse watching it as an adult like when I saw Dumbo when I helped manage the kid's movie tent at Cornerstone. SMH.

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    1. Thanks! :D

      Funny enough, I've had more moments where I rewatch something and enjoyed it more than moments where I rewatch something and dislike it. I guess most of what I watch has the nostalgia factor for me, and I'm a slave to my own nostalgia, haha. Makes it hard for me to "objectively review" (if there even is such a thing) stuff from my childhood, that's for sure!

      What would you say is your ratio for liking to disliking stuff you've rewatched?

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    2. No problem.

      That's really good. It's interesting re-watching something after years. Hindsight is 20/20 for me which makes it easier to see if something helps stand the test of time. Some things have been dated though. I do my best not to use my nostalgia goggles when I review something I remember.

      I never thought about that. Some stuff got better after starting my review blog, but I'd say 50/50 maybe.

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    3. That's pretty close. Very interesting!

      What do you think often suffers the most with time in the film or anime industry? Would you say it's the animation/special effects?

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    4. It's just a rough estimate though.

      I wouldn't say it's all about the animation or special effects. I've given good reviews to series or movies that have aged elements, but it isn't the only thing people should notice.

      The writing and characterization can be worse. One thing that comes to mind is the Glinda character from The original Wizard of Oz movie. You've heard about that fan theory about her being the real villain in the movie with how Dorothy could've gone back at anytime by clicking her heels, but Dorothy "wouldn't have believed" her. That's suspicious. You're in this giant magical world with talking lions, technicolor scenery, emerald cities, sentient scarecrows, and flying monkeys. What WOULDN'T you believe? It makes the main cast look like patsies in an assassination plot to kill the witch. Watching it in hindsight shows the plot holes and protagonist centered morality with how "good" characters were portrayed.

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    5. Would you say that's an element of bad writing that was given a pass due to its time? I would just consider that to be a writing flaw due to a plot hole, not necessarily it aging poorly.

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    6. It's certainly a plot hole. I won't argue with that. I do think the concept of good and evil was way too spelled out and obvious at the time. Sure, the film has aged decades ago with the effects back then, but the plot holes and characterization aren't as good as people make it out to be and that's not even getting into the original author's intent or his other writings.

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    7. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to have very obvious good and evil sides to a story. To be frank, I'm getting rather tired of gritty shades-of-gray-morality stories. I think a lot of that comes down to personal preferences, time period/historical context, and the type of story/genre. Obviously you probably don't want a black-and-white crime scene show; real people don't work that way. But I think in the fantasy setting, having clear lines between the good and the evil is usually appropriate.

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    8. I see. I don't mind seeing clearly defined heroes and villains even though I do like some anti-heroes though. Haha!

      I agree with a black and white crime show. As long as there is some believable reason why people do the things they do, then I'm fine. Some of these complete monster villains can rub me the wrong way because I know people don't act like that and it could lead to the belief that certain people are born to be pure evil which can have dangerous consequences. Usually when I create villains, I want them to be defined as doing evil things, but as you may know, I like it when villains are actually adored by other characters as they are oblivious or worse...complicit in their deeds.

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    9. I can definitely see the argument about having characters who are pure evil might lead to the lesson that certain people are born evil, but I personally would argue that given the right genre, we as the audience know that isn't the lesson the story is trying to tell. I think you can have a villain being evil for evil's sake and not extrapolate it to mean a real-life person. I'm sure I'll talk about that more in a future post... ;)

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    10. I see. Maybe this is Freudian for me since I've felt like certain kids of people are portrayed are evil at worst or useless at best in the media. It's one thing if you have some devil character or anything of that ilk, but there are times where it can be hard to watch for me. Genres can make a difference, but sometimes it can be repetitive.

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    11. That would definitely be tough. I can also see your argument about it being repetitive, which is one of the main arguments against evil-for-evil's sake villains or villain races.

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    12. Yes, it is. I feel like it would be walking on eggshells, but people get careless from what I've seen.

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