Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: June 16, 2000
Directed by: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, Art Vitello
Genre: Animation / Action / Adventure
Don Bluth is a legendary animation director. A rank-and-file animator for Disney for many years, he left Disney to forge his own path in feature animation. He did so spectacularly, becoming the first director to successfully challenge the Disney animation brand with independent classics such as “The Secret of NIMH” and “An American Tail.” As his last animated feature, 2000’s “Titan A.E.” is a mature and visually stunning science-fiction adventure that serves as a fitting cap to Bluth’s long and illustrious career.
The A.E. of the title stands for After Earth. The movie begins with a literal bang in the year 3028 A.D., as alien energy beings called the Drej use a fearsome weapon to destroy Earth in a cosmic fireball. Young Cale Tucker watches the horrific event from a fleeing spaceship, unknowingly carrying a ring, the key to a mysterious spaceship project called the Titan in which his father was involved.
Fifteen years later, the human race is scattered as refugees among the stars with no home world of its own. The grownup Cale barely ekes out a living on a rundown space station. He is contacted by newly arrived Captain Corso, who wants to use the map encoded in Cale’s ring to find the Titan. But the Drej are on the trail of Corso’s crew and the rest of the humans, and the race is on to find what may be the last hope for humankind in the lost legacy of Cale’s father.
While the overall plot of “Titan A.E.” sounds like a standard sci-fi hero adventure, it is the characters and visual execution that make the film stand out as a great animated work of art. Cale, voiced by Matt Damon, is a conflicted and bitter young man who blames his father for abandoning him to stay with the Titan after the Drej attack. Because of this, Cale grew up in poverty. At first only concerned with himself, he grows fitfully throughout the story into someone who is willing to fight for others and for even greater causes. Akima, his young love interest among Corso’s crew, voiced by Drew Barrymore, is a tough, sassy tomboy who helps drives Cale’s change of heart.
Bill Pullman’s Captain Corso at first comes across as a Han Solo clone, and he fills the void in Cale’s life as a father figure. He eventually reveals a darker side, however, and which side he ultimately allies himself with is left in the air until almost the very end. Corso’s crew of various alien misfits are all entertaining and amusing, with the film making good use of their limited screen time.
The true stars of this production are the sumptuous animation and stunning visual designs. Bluth’s outstanding trademark standards of fluid movements and highly expressive characters are upheld in this film. The movie also seamlessly blends digital animation, used for spaceships and the crackling energy-bodies of the Drej, with more traditional hand-drawn animation, which was quite an accomplishment for its time.
“Titan A.E.” is instilled with a deep sense of wonder about the universe. In one scene, beautiful energy creatures called “space angels” ride on the ship’s exhaust wake like electric butterflies of light. In another sequence on an alien world, plants create floating nodules filled with hydrogen gas, allowing them to create an ecosystem of soaring, gossamer-like trees.
The most amazing set piece of the film takes place in the Ice Rings of Tigrin, a remote region of the galaxy. Filled to the brim with floating, jagged mountains of ice, two starships play a desperate cat-and-mouse game, the fate of the Titan on the line. The ice constantly shifts and collides in a visually stunning scene that underscores the intense danger for all the characters involved.
The film does have a few minor flaws. It feels rushed at times, in part because it sometimes skimps on explanations to push through to the action. Just a few more lines of exposition here and there would have done wonders for a handful of scenes. The Drej were visually fascinating but were never really fleshed out enough to make them more than menacing enigmas.
“Titan A.E.” did not do as well at the box office as hoped for when it was first released, and it received only mixed critical reviews. However, it is now considered a cult classic and a hidden gem in the genres of science fiction and animation alike. Don Bluth finished his career with a brilliant but underrated film, traits that could be used to describe the legendary director himself.