A review requested by KayMartha12, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I like the idea of liking Titan A.E. It's the kind of movie that, I hold, there should be more of: space operas that really dig into the possibilities of a galaxy full of things that aren't humans and places that aren't variations on Earth. Besides that, it's impossible not to root for Don Bluth, the onetime Disney animator who struck out on his own at the dawn of the 1980s to create a truer and more heartfelt successor to the classic Disney features than the ones produced by that studio during its '70s decline. After out-Disneying Disney throughout the '80s, Bluth fell on excessively hard times, until he was tapped by 20th Century Fox to head their new animation studio, directing and producing alongside his longtime colleague and second-in-command Gary Goldman. The first project they made there was Anastasia, in 1997; in 2000, Titan A.E. was the second. You just gotta pull for a guy who gets that kind of second chance to make good, and to wipe the slate clean of all those Thumbelinas and The Pebble and the Penguins.

I am sorry to say, then, I do not like Titan A.E., and I don't even quite know that I admire it. I am glad it exists, and that it has its cult fanbase. If I was at a party and the conversation turned to everybody's favorite animated movies,* if somebody said Titan A.E., I would instantly find that person slightly more interesting. But I simply don't think that the film works - it tries as hard as it can, and it doesn't come together. It has lots of ambition and neither the resources nor, maybe, the know-how to carry it off. It falls into the trap not uncommon to fiercely independent animators who love the medium like Bluth, in that it attends to the craft at the expense of having anything interesting to say or likable characters to say it with. And the craft isn't as good as it would need to be to justify that.

The movie kicks off with a monologue delivered by Ron Perlman in an uncharacteristically sedate mode, that so perfectly tells us what to expect from the movie that follows that I feel forced to quote it in full:
"Once in a great while mankind unlocks a secret so profound that our future is altered forever. Fire, electricity, splitting the atom... At the dawn of the 31st century we unlocked another. It had the potential to change humanity's role in the universe. We called it the Titan Project, and it was a testament to the limitless power of the human imagination. Perhaps that is what the Drej feared most, for it brought them down upon us without warning and without mercy. Cale, that day, the day that the Drej descended from the sky, the only thing that mattered was keeping you safe."

Man, you've just got everything there: heaving, portentous philosophy; something that sounds like exposition but isn't; dumb-ass sci-fi terms worked into the dialogue, as if the word "Drej" doesn't sound hilariously stupid; a swerve from omniscient third-person into homey second-person in an attempt to personalise all of this in some capacity. It is How To Write Grandiose Speculative Fiction 101, like somebody fell asleep during a Babylon 5 marathon after spending the afternoon reading midcentury Amazing Stories anthologies, and this is what they jotted down in their dream journal. It sets the tone for everything that follows pretty well, given that what Titan A.E. does most and does best is to present the gung-ho space adventure of good pulp fiction with the self-serious gravity of epic poetry.

The film starts in 3028, where Professor Sam Tucker (Perlman) of Earth is busily trying to secure Titan, whatever it might be, before the Drej can come along to destroy it, and the planet it lives on. The clock is ticking down at an alarmingly fast rate, though, which is why Tucker has his good friend, the bug-like alien Tek (Tone Lōc), secure young Cale Tucker (Alex D. Linz) on one of the many evacuation ships fleeing from Earth. Cale and Tex escape by a thin enough margin to watch the Drej blow up the planet with lasers, turning the human race into a galaxy-spanning race of undesirable nomads.

We don't see that part, of course, until the action skips to 3043, at which point the twentysomething Cale (Matt Damon, whose voice is much too boring to justify casting him as an animated character), working alongside other refugee humans and various down-and-out aliens in a space junkyard, establishes for us that he's chafing at the bigotry humans face in the galaxy. He's about to discover that by virtue of his parentage, he's destined for greater things: as revealed by Captain Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman, who makes Damon sound like James Earl Jones) of the Valkyrie, who comes bearing information from the late Professor Tucker, that the father was able to encode a map to the remnants of the Titan Project into Cale's body, which is why not just Korso, but also the Drej, have been trying to locate him. And in hardly any time, Cale is off on a galaxy-spanning quest to find the Titan before the Drej find him, alongside Korso's motley crew of dysmorphic aliens: Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a sort of kangaroo, Grune (John Leguizamo), a frog-like creature who visually and aurally resembles Linda Hunt from The Year of Living Dangerously, and Preed (Nathan Lane), who looks like a doberman fucked a stick insect. Also the pretty human Akima (Drew Barrymore, putting in the absolute minimum amount of energy, and turning out what might actually be the worst vocal performance in any English-language animated feature I've ever seen), so Cale has somebody to fall in love with.

Of course the story is boilerplate: I think it would be a disappointment for it to be anything else, given how much of a love letter to pulp sci-fi everything about the project is. Still, it's astonishing that it took the combined efforts of Ben Edlund, John August, and Joss Whedon (who would revisit extremely similar territory to better effect in Firefly) to produce a screenplay this wholly familiar and utterly devoid of wit (in fairness, none of them were responsible for the story, which is credited to Hans Bauer and Randall McCormick). The comedy in Titan A.E. is exclusively sub-par, mostly consisting of Grune saying dumb things, or random members of the cast forgetting that it's 3043 and not 2000, and accidentally lapsing into '90s slang; the characters barely even get one personality trait apiece (Preed is sanctimonious, Stith is angry, Akima is... I actually don't even know. Even saying her personality is "the girl" is giving her too much credit). It's very bland, and the fact that the third-largest role in the film is played by Bill "the living embodiment of whitebread anonymity" Pullman doesn't help matters.

That is, of course, because the main draw of Titan A.E. is the world in which it takes place, and the cutting-edge animation used to bring it to life. Too cutting-edge, in fact: the film is notable for its ludicrously ambitious (by 2000 standards) desire to marry cel-style animated characters with 3-D rendered CGI sets, effects, and certain aliens - the Drej are always only computer models. I am greatly impressed that in only his second film in more than a decade to have significant financial backing, Bluth was already anxious to push the medium forward, but the technique simply wasn't ready for prime time. The characters always appear to be floating on top of the CG elements, which turns positively nauseating in moments such as when we see a hand-drawn face inside a CG spacesuit. Think about it: Disney, a company with more R&D money to throw around in the late '90s than any other animation studio in history was still working the bugs out of Deep Canvas, its proprietary attempt to create "painted" backdrops in a 3-D computer space, nor would it even attempt to mix traditional and CG animation so intimately for another two years, with Treasure Planet. And even there, it's not great. The Titan A.E. never had a chance, really, and sure enough, the big showcase moments where we watch the camera float around the characters in a 3-D set is more prone to creating a sense of motion sickness than immersion.

That being said, much of the animation, when it sticks to one medium at a time, is very lovely. There's a little bit of the problem with all Don Bluth pictures, of broad over-acting: young Cale especially looks like he's deliberately trying to pull a facial muscle. I'm also not terribly keen on the way Stith moves her enormous legs. But for the most part, this is hunting for subdued realism of a sort that Bluth had never really indicated was a goal prior to this. Sometimes, it's too subdued: Cale, Akima, and Korso have such realistic faces that the animators have been left without much room to change their expressions, and they're pretty much stuck with one emotion per scene. The aliens, however, are marvelous: full of exaggerated body parts and movements, slightly creepy in the Bluth fashion rather than huggably cute, like Disney would have done. Preed especially is marvelous to look at, with his highly mutable face and long, expressive arms. There's a gross ugliness about him that is captivating even in stills, and in motion he's a great triumph of a form of character animation that hardly exists, realistic but also subtly off-putting.

The film is also, frequently, excellent as a space action picture: the filmmakers take full advantage of the possibilities of alien architecture, zero-gravity environments, and three-dimensional physics, using the potential of the medium to explore space in far more elaborate ways than a comparatively mid-tier live-action film could ever afford. The early escape sequence, with Cale and Korso floating away from the Drej, is a tiny masterpiece in thinking through the ramifications of space rather than just positing "it's science fiction 'cuz they have laser guns" and making it a normal action movie with odd costumes.

And it always comes crashing down: whether it's the brutal ugliness of the CGI, the dazzlingly anachronistic score that enthusiastically pushes our noses right into the '90s rock, the boring characters, or whathaveyou. The commitment to the ethos of pulp sci-fi is clearly there in the plot and the world design, but pulp is like any other extremely heightened mode: you have to keep it in perfect balance and treat it with utmost sincerity, and if the spell gets broken even once, it's not going to come back. Too many things in Titan A.E. go too obviously wrong for that balance to be maintained, and despite individual moments that are extraordinarily rich in space opera bravado, the film as a whole is simply too stiff and awkward.

*This is why I don't get invited to parties.