Day 7 of Don Bluth: Titan A.E.
As a historian, it’s helpful to remind yourself that decades and centuries don’t actually exist, that time measurements like that are relatively arbitrary and that material events don’t respect these tidy boundaries as much as VH1 would have you believe. And yet, as the historical materialist adage goes, the material is primary but, when an idea grips the people, it becomes a material force. For example, animation industry went through a traumatic transition at the end of the 1990s. Disney’s Renaissance formula of huge-scale Broadway-style musical blockbusters gave way to a few years of creative confusion where a raft of unusual projects came out. And while there were a few successes, the dominant theme for the 2D animation industry in the United States for the first decade of the 2000s was abject failure. So we come to Titan A.E.
Though I would describe early 2000s feature animation films from the States as an eclectic collection, there were smaller trends and currents that developed within the whirlpool of chaos. One of these was a spate of films capitalizing on the vogue for science fiction generated by The Matrix. Even the Scooby Doo movie in the year 2000 was about aliens instead of ghosts or swamp monsters. Nearly every one completely bombed. Disney, who leaned into the science fiction genre with gusto at the beginning of the 2000s, released Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Lilo and Stitch, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and the Pixar-produced Wall-E in that decade, with only Lilo and Wall-E generating much enthusiasm. Don Bluth’s contribution to this little fad for science fiction in animation was Titan A.E., which has an unusual and belaboured backstory.
Story credits on the film go to Hans Bauer, screenwriter for Anaconda, and Randall McCormick, fresh from his smashing success with Speed 2: Cruises Control. Schlock ahoy, yes? Well, the actual writing credits fall to a trio of trendy creatives who had considerable caché in the late 90s. Joss Whedon, who needs no introduction; Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick; and John August, who had just written the acclaimed Doug Liman film Go and later became a go-to scrivener for Tim Burton. Two points immediately spring to mind. First, the team has some pedigree and some complementary just-off-of-mainstream sensibilities. Not to mention a familiarity with science fiction and fantasy. However, they are also the least natural collaborators with Mormon Disneyphile Don Bluth.
Unsurprisingly, given that he changed Secret of NIMH from a more science-based to a more magic-based story, Bluth was not a fan of science fiction. Nor was his longtime partner Gary Goldman. Titan A.E. is, for of all these reasons, the most anonymous directing work Don Bluth ever did. I was frankly astonished that Bluth was attached to the film, since I had seen it as a youngster, moderately enjoyed it, and forgotten about it. I certainly never associated it with fever dreams like The Pebble and the Penguin, much less his more decorated work in the 1980s. But enough preliminaries! Let’s move into the specifics.
1. Bluth’s Hidden Hand
Given his lack of interest in science fiction and the unusual dialogue (on which more later), one might expect that Bluth’s key tropes wouldn’t be as noticeable here. On the contrary, the science fiction setting seems to highlight their presence, and one can see why Bluth would pick this project to do after Anastasia. As in all Bluth films, protagonist Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) has inherited a Trinket of Destiny from an older relative or loved one, becoming a totem as well as a plot-crucial object in some way. In this case, it’s a ring and hand imprint capable of reactivating the Titan, a Deus Ex Machina parked in space that can help humanity recover from the destruction of Earth by energy aliens. Within the space of the narrative, however, the reconciliation of the absent father with the son who vindicates the previous generation is played as almost as important as the restoration of the human race, which is a goal too abstract to fuel a conventional heroic narrative like this.
This trope is common enough in standard heroic chosen one narratives, but the fact that the story includes the destruction and restoration of Earth via miraculous (albeit technological) means certainly appealed to the man who put the Great Valley at the end of the road in Land Before Time and had a rooster rescue the world from deluge in Rock-a-Doodle. That apocalyptic, cosmic sense of stakes sits comfortably with Bluth’s other work, which almost always sharpens the typical “believe in yourself and follow your dreams” beats into moments with a more religious and moral significance. The presence of a rainbow baptizing the new Planet Bob (Earth 2) does nothing to dispel the Christian overtones.
It’s also worth mentioning that Bluth has set sequences in space before, notably the opening credits of Rock-a-Doodle, which shift from the depth of a star field to a sunrise over the Earth.
Titan A.E. thus tells the parallel stories of one man reclaiming his place in his family legacy just as human beings restore their rightful place within the universe. Beyond the obvious Noah references already mentioned, the story bears a strong resemblance to that of Moses and the wandering Hebrews in the desert, with humans drifting on space colonies emerging to reclaim their promised land in a new Earth, saving them from lives of drudgery.
2. Meet the Crew
Even knowing next to nothing about Firefly, I can tell that the relationships among the crew members of the Valkyrie, the ship used to find the Titan, could support many comparisons with Whedon’s space western. Each crew member has a distinct personality quirk, most of them are always ready to spout salty comebacks, and their dialogue is spiked and clever. Among Bluth’s talents, clever and biting humour has never been one of them, which means Titan A.E. feels the least sentimental and naïve of his work, mostly due to these dialogue exchanges. Whereas the peak of sharp laughter in Rock-a-Doodle is an undersized owl mistaking words for other words, characters like the first mate Preed and Drew Barrymore’s Akima (a role I didn’t realize was whitewashed until just now) exchange witty banter that meets the bar more than not. Not to mention the downright acerbic Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a kangaroo alien who wears a red shirt from Star Trek and has an itchy trigger finger.
At the head of the crew, however, stands none other than Captain Joseph Korso, played by a well-cast Bill Pullman. He’s notable for being one of the few morally ambiguous characters in Bluth’s body of work. Despite his mercenary motives and traitorous actions, he’s finally won over to the side of good because of his humanity. Though the ultimate antagonists of the film are the Drej, pure energy beings who fear human potential for poorly explained reasons (one of the major narrative weaknesses of the film), Korso provides an excuse for a climactic fistfight––proving ground for the protagonist’s matured masculinity, I suppose––and gives a human face to villainy that can’t be replicated.
3. Hit Them With the Ugly Stick!
Though all the characters are animated with traditional cels, an overwhelming amount of the rest of the film is done in computer generated imagery. Design work is overall strong if generic. For one, the Drej certainly lend themselves to computer animation, and their angular and reflective designs work well with the medium’s limitations at the time of production. Ships look slightly worse, and wouldn’t look too out of place in the FMV backgrounds of Wing Commander III, but competent design keeps them from being entirely ridiculous. In fact, one of the more creative bits of art in the film is the ramshackle drifter colony, assembled from rusty parts welded together.
Late in the film, however, we see the paradisiacal New Earth and its glory is more than a little diminished by how, shall we say, limited its textures appear to be.
A potential reason for this is that some of the sequences of the film were produced by a different animation studio since Bluth’s studio in Arizona had already been downsized by about 300 people. Notably, Blue Sky Studios handled the Earth reformation sequence in their first work for Fox, just two years before Sid the Sloth and Scrat began their long reign of terror over the silver screen.
Finale: Closure at Last
Titan A.E., despite having a trendy, awful soundtrack and a hip story subject, was an astronomical failure. Fox Animation was no more, as was traditional animation in Hollywood outside of Disney and, after a few more years, at Disney as well. It also represents the end of Don Bluth’s career in features to date. Whatever happens in the future, he can be assured of some kind of historical legacy for outdoing Disney in the 80s and producing a string of fascinating failures from thereon out. While I would argue that his films are uncritical and naïve both politically and aesthetically, I find some of his more bizarre work endearing in spite of this fact.
It’s tempting to focus on Bluth’s nostalgia and say he was a classicist who, by the 1990s, was simply a step out of time. I would argue a slightly different tack: he was a classicist who would ride trends and compromise when necessary. Most of his 1990s output hews closely to what Disney was doing at the time, and when it didn’t––Troll in Central Park––it was an aimless catastrophe. Having sat through all of his 1990s work now, I can say that he was a unique voice, but it often sounded more like an echo than a vital force in the present. An echo of himself or the good old days? Depends on the movie.