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. 🙂
Year Released: 2000
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 95 mins.
This review will contain spoilers.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
Notes and References:
- T B Skyen, “SAME FACE SYNDROME: is it a good art-criticism?” [sic], YouTube video, 22:25, May 23, 2017.
- Katie Wendt, “Titan A.E. Redesign Project,” Katie Wendt (blog), April 10, 2009, accessed February 15, 2018.
- 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.
- Porter, “The Only Thing I Remember About Titan A.E.”
- Evan Backes. “Why Does It Take Ten Years!?!” Animation World Network, AWN, Inc., April 1, 2001, accessed February 15, 2018.
- 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.
- Brian Linder. “Fox Animation Studios Closes Its Doors.” IGN. Ziff Davis, LLC, June 27, 2000, accessed February 15, 2018.
- “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!
From Him, To Him