TITAN A.E: a disappointingly vanilla science-fiction adventure (2000 in Film #23)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 16th, Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s Titan A.E.

Look, I know I keep cheating with my own rules when it comes to talking about the king of the box office, but the thought of writing lots of words about Gone in 60 Seconds, even watching it again, filled me with dread.

Dominic Sena’s film ruled the roost in the first weekend of June 2000, while Titan A.E. debuted the following weekend, and the Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie-starrer went on to a decent global box office take. It no doubt helped get The Fast and the Furious reboot on the road, which arrived in 2001, and given that has emerged to be the unlikeliest of most successful cinematic franchises ever, Gone in 60 Seconds has a lot to answer for with its high-octane nonsense. The F&F films are at least, for the most part, fun to watch. Gone in 60 Seconds presents itself as a fuelled up riot but ends up a hammy, badly projected slog that seeing once, quite some years ago, was more than enough. I am many things but a glutton for punishment? Not so much.

Titan A.E. fell short of John Singleton’s remake of Shaft next week, which this blog will cover, but this felt an interesting picture to cover simply for the fact animation hasn’t exactly been at a premium this year so far, and Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s film honestly *should* have been quite something. All we’ve really had in 2000 is Dinosaur, an interminably dull picture with a far more intriguing backstory than eventual film, do some box office damage, so Titan A.E. had the space, as an independent animated picture backed by 20th Century Fox, to enrapture children and captive adults. Yet it did neither, collapsing at the box office in the wake of hundreds of animators on the film being fired as Fox Animation Studios collapsed, and the CEO who commissioned it, Bill Mechanic—who just a year or so earlier had Fight Club made—was shown the door.

It could be why you may not even remember Titan A.E., despite a strong cast, enjoyable science-fiction premise, and a wealth of promise. Twenty years on, it’s hard to even argue for it as a lost animated great.

Bluth & Goldman’s film didn’t originate from either of them, rather starting life as a live-action science-fiction adventure that Fox simply could not get off the ground, despite scripts from as austere writers as John August, Ben Edlund and even Joss Whedon, who all get a credit on the eventual film.

Mechanic ended up handing the film to Bluth & Goldman hoping for Titan A.E. to revitalise Fox’s flagging animation arm, which both of the celebrated animators had helped him create in the mid-90’s in the wake of Disney’s animated resurgence across the late 80’s and early 90’s with hugely successful pictures like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. The mid-90’s was quite a fascinating period for animation, with Disney being rivalled at the time by the emergent Pixar, with Toy Story having exploded on the scene ion 1995, while the new DreamWorks studio joined the animated cold war soon after with films such as Antz or The Prince of Egypt. It was a fertile period in which, even to date, some of the finest animated pictures had been produced, but Fox couldn’t quite find a window in. Their only dent had been Bluth & Goldman’s first film for the studio, Anastasia, hence pulling them in to transform Titan A.E.

The writing perhaps was on the wall in the fact it wasn’t a natural project they had constructed from the ground up, nor had they a great deal of history with science-fiction. Bluth & Goldman had presided over some of the most celebrated and enjoyable animated pictures of the 80’s, such as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and An American Tail (one I particularly adored as a little child), so their stock in trade was far more in line with fantasy and exploring historical time periods through anthropomorphic animated creatures, as opposed to the straight up adventure narrative Titan A.E. employs. What we get as a result is something of a mash together of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, 30’s adventure serials, countless sci-fi television series, and a distinct whiff of Japanese anime. In some ways, it almost feels a forerunner of the awkward photo-realism of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within a year later.

The vestiges of live-action linger in how Matt Damon plays the young hero, Cale Tucker (him being called Cale also did raise an unfortunate titter), who treads a well-worn narrative. Losing his father as a young boy, he grows up in the wake of a destroyed Earth far in the 31st century to be a listless space worker, only to be dragged from it by Bill Pullman’s Han Solo-esque Captain Korso, and Drew Barrymore’s spunky pilot Akima, on a quest to track down the Titan, a spacecraft developed by humanity to found a second Earth before they were largely wiped out by evil incorporeal aliens the Drej, which ended up lost. Stop me if any of this sounds relatively familiar from about a dozen other sci-fi properties. The problem Titan A.E. has is that it begins in generic fashion and never escapes those restraints, telling a well-worn narrative without much in the way of innovation, set to a weirdly out of place late-90’s pop rock soundtrack which intrudes over Graeme Revell’s score.

Bluth & Goldman have denied express anime inspirations but you can feel that in Titan A.E.’s DNA, particularly through Akima, and perhaps it is subconsciously encoded given anime at the time—thanks to films such as Akira or Ghost in the Shell which were breaking out beyond Japanese culture—was serving as a direct stylistic counterpoint to what American animation offered. Anime was presenting fascinating, weird, varied worlds, while nearby Studio Ghibli are churning out truly inspirational, moving, hauntingly strange pieces such as Spirited Away (which would come out in 2001). With Pixar leading the way for an American revolution in which animation could do, and Disney in the midst of a post-Mulan, creative decline (one they won’t really get out of until they buy Pixar), where does a film like Titan A.E. sit? Honestly, who is it really even for?

Cale at one point comments, while listless before undertaking his quest, “Every day I wake up, it’s still the present, the same grimy, boring present. I don’t think this future thing exists”. That line could apply to the world Titan A.E. presents. It is set in the mid-3040’s, but it could just as easily be 2140 or 2240, with the exception of a few weird, talky aliens thrown in for good measure. Bluth & Goldman’s film seems rooted in a present that has no idea how to depict any kind of future in the innovative manner we will later see Pixar do with films such as Wall-E, or Japanese anime conjures up regularly. Titan A.E. is utterly vanilla, lacking the kind of drive needed to make it a memorable experience. Even watching it, I was prone to drifting off. It rapidly became background and for a film boasting a concept like this, that’s just criminal.

It’s a shame. Titan A.E. does have points of sweeping animation mixed with computer generated effects, good voice talent and a decent central idea, but it lacks the magic to compete with the brave, new animated world emerging around it. It’s unsurprising the film tanked Fox’s part in cinema’s animated story.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

20 – Road Trip

21 – Mission Impossible II

22 – Shanghai Noon

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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