"Titan A.E." is Twentieth Century Fox's last hope in its continuing battle to carve out a niche in the feature film animation business. The future of its animation division, still smarting from the lackluster performance of 1997's "Anastasia", rests solely on the shoulders of this sprawling space opera that infuses traditional Western animation techniques with the edgy look-and-feel of Japanese anime ("Princess Mononoke"). If "Titan A.E." fails to deliver at the box office, Fox will most likely pull the plug on any future animation projects, conceding victory to Dreamworks ("The Road to El Dorado") and the studio that started it all, Disney ("Dinosaur"). Fortunately, "Titan A.E." more than lives up to its hype, with an epic scope that seems familiar in a "Star Wars" sort of way, but with enough fresh ideas to make it a must-see for animation and sci-fi junkies.
In the year 3028, Earth is destroyed by a malevolent race of energy beings called the Drej, who fear the potential of the human race. Fast forwarding 15 years, the survivors of the cataclysm, the few remaining members of the human race, are now scattered among the stars, eking out a miserable existence as second-class citizens in an unfriendly galaxy. One of these 'colony bums' is Cale (voiced by Matt Damon of "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), a bitter Luke Skywalker-type who has grown up alone, not having seen his father since the day he was left in the care of a family friend prior to the destruction of Earth. Hotheaded and brash, Cale passes his days collecting scrap metal for salvaging, yet yearns for a chance at adventure.
Cale's wish comes true when he crosses paths with a fellow human named Korso (Bill Pullman of "Independence Day"), who is an old friend of his father. Korso is on a mission to complete the work that Cale's father started, and the key to success rests in his son. After the destruction of Earth, Cale's father was last seen piloting the Titan, a monstrous ship containing the last hope for mankind, into deep space, but was never seen or heard from again. However, coded within Cale's DNA is a map for finding the lost ship.
Though Cale is at first reluctant to join Korso on what could be a wild goose chase, his mind is quickly changed when a number of heavily-armed Drej show up, who are also looking for the Titan-- only their aim is to destroy it. They make their way to Korso's ship, which is where Cale meets the rest of the crew. There is the alluring navigator Akima (voiced by Drew Barrymore of "Ever After"), the bad-mannered first officer Preed (Nathan Lane of "Isn't She Great"), the cranky weapons expert Stith (Janeane Garofolo of "Mystery Men"), and the brilliant-but-wacky science officer Gune (John Leguizamo of "Summer of Sam"). With his newfound family, Cale travels across the galaxy, following the map encoded in his hand, in search of his father's legacy. Unfortunately, the Drej are not far behind, and they are prepared to use any means to wipe out the 'human problem' once and for all.
"Titan A.E." may for all intents and purposes be a 'cartoon', but it has in spades what many of today's sci-fi genre offerings are sadly lacking-- a decent script. In comparison to a number of genre offerings, most notably "Wing Commander", "Supernova", "Battlefield Earth", and yes, even "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", "Titan A.E." is probably one of the most original so-called sci-fi epics to grace the big screen in a long while, aided by some solidly-developed characters and a story that makes it easy to forget you're in a movie theater.
From the film's opening scene detailing a desperate evacuation of the Earth prior to the Drej attack, to a cat-and-mouse sequence pitting opposing ships in a mirrored latticework of crystalline ice debris, there's plenty of things in this 'cartoon' that you've never seen before. Like last year's "The Matrix", "Titan A.E." takes the familiar elements and conventions of science fiction and spins it in unexpected ways. Even more interesting is how the script plays with audience expectations-- some of the film's more memorable moments come at the expense of well-worn clichés, such as a scene where a supposedly 'unintelligent guard' is not so easily fooled by the actions of the heroes.
Visually, the combination of cel animation and leading edge computer graphics make "Titan A.E." a stunning feast for the eyes. Even though the contrast between the animated and computer-enhanced elements of the film is sometimes detectable, veteran animators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have done a meticulous job in trying to mesh the two contrasting media.
In terms of the visual elements themselves, "Titan A.E." borrows a few pages from the Japanese anime playbook, which are used to great success in the film's more high-octane action sequences. Mind you, those expecting a totally kid-friendly megaplex experience should be warned-- this is not your average singing-and-dancing animals type of animation. The target audience for "Titan A.E." is unashamedly adults (who are also the biggest consumers of anime, both here and in Japan), which is reinforced by some passing nudity, wounds that bleed, and characters that die horribly violent deaths.
Mind you, "Titan A.E." is far from perfect, but fortunately, I only could find fault with two issues. Though the script is light-years beyond last year's "Phantom Menace", there were a few plot twists, particularly in the film's climax, which seemed a little too contrived. Also, the film's soundtrack is probably aimed at selling lots of CDs, since the jarring hip-hop-pop-rock songs felt completely out of place, other than to allow for MTV-like musical montages during the action sequences. But, these are small quibbles in an otherwise splendid film.
"Titan A.E." is a feel-good 'humanity-conquers-all' story wrapped up in some impressive eye candy. Though a number of the film's elements could be easily dismissed as yet another "Star Wars"-wannabe, the spectacle, scope, and ingenuity of "Titan A.E." will assure its place among the top animated feature films of the year 2000. Science fiction and anime fans... this is your wake-up call.