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Dave's Other Movie Log

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Titan A.E.****

A few minutes after Titan A.E. commences in the year 3028, the Earth is blown to pieces on screen by a hostile race of aliens called the Drej. Talk about starting in medias res! One of the few survivors of this disaster is young Cale, whose father, the scientist Sam Tucker, leaves him with a ring containing coded information for locating the Titan, a kind of intergalactic Noah's Ark the elder Tucker has conceived for reestablishing the human race at some indeterminate point in the future. From this moment on, the remainder of the film, directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, doesn't pause for a moment as it  recounts the subsequent adventures of Cale, now a "rebellious youth"--to quote from the description of the character on Titan A.E.'s Web site [see below]--to find Titan and provide a new home for the scattered, nomadic survivors of the Drej attack. In this quest he is going to be aided by a fellow human, the girl Akima,  and a pair of aliens, the navigator Gune, and the lady gunner Stith, while he will be hindered by the traitorous captain Korso and his alien henchman, Preed. 

This combination of a prototypic narrative structure and a highly conventionalized assignment of roles--hero/hero's assistants/villains--has been carried out so flagrantly I began to wonder if the writers, Randall McCormick (story) and Hans Bauer (screenplay), hadn't been taking their cue from Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, which argues for similar recurrent patterns in a number of traditional Russian tales. But no one need look so far to find a source of inspiration for the movie's story line: Titan A.E's plot almost exactly resembles that of innumerable short stories and novellas that appeared in science fiction pulp magazines in the 1950's and later. It is generally forgettable works of this kind that might explain Northrop Frye's hailing science fiction as the contemporary successor to the ancient romance in The Secular Scripture.

Whatever the shortcomings of its space opera scenario, Titan A.E. is a strikingly conceived and executed animated film that surpasses in verve, wit, and visual ingenuity anything Disney has made for years. When the movie opened with treacle-drenched compositions of Tucker père et fils at play in the woods, I silently groaned in expectation of a feast of pictorial clichés in the manner of late Disney. Fortunately, the instant that episode was over and the earth blown to smithereens, the film shifted gears, going in for a more lively visual style like that of a well-designed science fiction comic book or of Japanese anime--itself indebted to comic book art--and staying away from moments of lyrical apotheosis by and large. 

Only at the end of the picture, with the birth of the new Earth, when Titan A.E. has pulled out so many stops that hardly anything remains for it to try out, does the film fall into the inflated Grand Manner that has been standard in Disney features since The Lion King at least. However, Titan A.E.'s strongest point is its tempo which is never forced but which also never falters. In this respect the film puts to shame George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode I -The Phantom Menace, which has a far more spacey scenario, a painstakingly tedious pace, and the execrable Jar-Jar Binks, who is totally outclassed as an alien by Preed--with Nathan Lane's voice--in Titan A.E. 

In fact, the great older Disney features like Snow White, Pinocchio, or Bambi moved very quickly, but the same cannot be said of a ponderous opus like Tarzan, which at some moments drags along with elephantine pretentiousness, more intent upon selling its feel good message than with doing something imaginative with animation. I have no problems with that message--wouldn't anyone prefer a film that preaches tolerance and understanding rather than contempt for his or her fellow beings? But who wants to go to the movies to hear a sermon, no matter how well-intentioned?

My greatest regret is that Titan A.E. never quite manages to pull out of the anthropomorphic orbit laid down by Disney which has by now become de rigueur for animated features. Apart from experimental films, one of the few real challenges to the dogma of celluloid anthropomorphism came from the Warner Bros. short cartoons in which characters were subjected to all kinds of improbable transformations, defying the Disney convention that even animated creations had to have the substantiality of human beings. 

Yet in some older pictures like Snow White or Fantasia the anthropomorphizing goes so far--when every bump on a log seems on the verge of displaying eyes, ears, and a mouth--that it becomes almost hallucinatory, as if the viewer had been transported into the mythic realm of Ovid's Metamorphoses or into the infantile fantasy of a world completely inhabited by invisible spirits.  But that was long ago, and the advent of computer graphics has pushed animated films steadily in the direction of being little more than simulacra of conventional dramatic screen productions with live performers, realized with suffocating visual literalism. 

Although there is reason to suspect that the trick films of Georges Méliès or early cartoons may have had a significant influence upon the work of avant-garde artists in Europe and this country, the visual style of most commercially produced animated features today resembles that of the kind of realistic painting greatly appreciated by people who hate any serious art produced after the beginning of this century. Science fiction, with its extra-terrestrial locales and alien forms of life, would seem to be a logical place for testing the limits of the anthropomorphic orbit, yet sadly Titan A.E. only effectively picks up the challenge once, when the voyagers visit a planet populated by bat-like creatures. Yet that sequence like some other moments in the film is a sufficient reminder of the incredible plastic power of the animated image over the reified, stereographic monstrosities of A Bug's Life and its more recent offspring.

The most interesting question the movie raises is not if there is going to be life After Earth but whether there is going to be feature animation After Disney. A few days after the head of production at Fox, Bill Mechanic, resigned his post, the studio announced it was closing down its animation unit located in Phoenix--the blame for both of these events being laid in  part on Titan A.E.'s failure to score a big hit at the box office. Although DreamWorks may continue with its ventures into full-length animation--assuming that the studio itself continues to remain a viable entity--Warners is unlikely to greenlight another major animation picture after the equally disappointing performance last summer of The Iron GiantLike it or not, Disney is going to retain its de facto monopoly on animation for the foreseeable future. 

The case against Disney as a purveyor of children's fare was presented by Richard Schickel in his book The Disney Version, and Schickel has repeated his charges on various subsequent occasions. While I would agree that Schickel makes a number of valid points, I think he underrates the significance of Disney's contribution to the history of American movies. Only a few figures--D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille--have had an impact on the development of motion pictures in this country comparable to that of Walt Disney. To this day, the studio that bears his name continues to produce the most technically adroit animated features made anywhere in the world. 

Nevertheless, monopoly even by default is not a healthy phenomenon. Monopoly notoriously stifles initiative, particularly when reinforced by excessive pietas towards the family tradition, as seems to be the case at Disney. Just as the bulk of commercially produced movies do not represent the only way of making a motion picture, what has been the dominant approach to making animated features by no means represents the unique solution to the task of telling a story with animation. Like Ralph Bakshi's ingenious Fritz the Cat of many years back, Titan A.E. is not so much a radical alternative to the Disney tradition as it is a welcome breath of fresh air whose abrupt expiration is likely to discourage any studio from trying out a similar experiment any time in the near future. 

What looms imminently on the horizon, God forbid, is the film version of  Lord of the Rings, rife with adorable elves, gnomes, orcs, and all the other picturesque inhabitants of J.R.Tolkien's faux faerie--animation as the pious pseudo-illumination of a pseudo-medieval romance. Hitherto, the power of animation has only been tested in short experimental or art films made by directors like Alexander Alexieff, Norman MacClaren, Stan Brakhage or Jordan Belson. Whether anyone will ever have a chance to show what could be done with the technical and financial resources of productions like Dinosaur or Titan A.E. if they were not subordinated to the most retrogressive canons of artistic realism remains sadly dubious.

Check out the Titan A.E. Web site 

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