Earth explodes into smithereens within the first few minutes of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s animated sci-fi adventure Titan AE. Erroneously targeted at young audiences, since it features the near annihilation of the human species as its inciting incident as well as other mature elements, the film raised some eyebrows upon its release in 2000. The directors were making something distinct, a departure from the dominance of Disney fables during the 90s but right before other studios like BlueSky or DreamWorks found success with more satirical storytelling throughout the early noughties. Bluth’s career, in particular, had been unconventional and based on reinvention. With Titan, that artistic approach reached its riskiest, most pattern-defying form.
Set in the 31st century, this unfairly maligned outer-space action dystopia follows Cale (Matt Damon), an arrogant bro-type separated from his father when the planet was destroyed. The Drej, an alien life form that materializes as humanoid entities composed of blue energy, are the villains here are. Among Titan’s darker, most intriguing ideas, albeit unexplored at length, is that these antagonists, who speak in a foreign language that’s subtitled, are afraid of mankind becoming too powerful. They don’t trust us. Watching it as a child I didn’t get the subtext about whether they had reason to fear us. In a recent rewatch, that passage seems to comment on colonialism and our propensity for war.
Cale’s mission is to locate the spaceship that holds the key to human survival with the help of two other wandering earthlings, Akima (Drew Barrymore) and Korso (Bill Pullman), and a few curious extraterrestrials, most notably Gune (John Leguizamo plays him with an adorably raspy voice). In this universe, humans are seen as inferior beings on the brink of extinction. In 2021 that dystopian concept also feels relevant.
Perceived as not original enough and too adult to entice the grade school crowd, yet still marketed as a kids product, Titan AE was rendered a financial bomb and was critically dismissed. “One of those children’s movies that is made for especially dim or easily fooled children,” said Film.com at the time of the release. Endless facile comparisons to Star Wars were also a major part of the discourse against it. But I’d argue that there was an unconscious bias against an animated feature that didn’t behave like most of the offerings in that realm at the time. Titan AE surely suffered from the false idea that animation is a genre, and not a medium suited for all types of tales.
Most certainly some of its narrative issues came from the fact that this was originally a project meant as a live action blockbuster. It had to be adapted, and likely toned down for violence. Bursting with the need to be grittier and perhaps even sexier, the premise was tied to the expectations of a production generated to appeal to all ages. Even as an animated feature, Titan could have been even cruder with a PG-13 rating and aimed at teenagers watching MTV. Instead, the final product was the misunderstood result of that awkward transition forcing it to fit into the PG box judged against that narrow perception of what animation ought to tell. Titan ended Bluth’s run at Fox Animation Studios, which included the success of 1997’s Anastasia, and is singlehandedly blamed for the disappearance of that Fox division as a whole. Bluth and Goldman haven’t directed a feature in the 20 years since, but are currently in development for a live action Dragon’s Lair film.
But whether or not the studio tried to tame Titan, its rebellious spirit still comes through in the final cut. Blood seeps from wounds, something that’s often consider off limits even in live action fantasy films that the depict warfare. One scene early on even shows Cale’s naked backside and some of the humorous dialogue is rather risqué. Rock music, grungier and more aggressive than the generic pop sludge that scores most family-oriented titles these days, drenches this space odyssey with a certain cool edge. At every turn, Bluth, Goldman, and their collaborators refused to completely infantilize their art.
Titan AE was created at an inflection point for the animation medium. In the year 2000, though it seems difficult to believe from where we stand now, 3DCG animation wasn’t the norm. The first two installments of the Toy Story franchise existed, but most of the studios were still making 2D, hand-drawn projects. It was the tail end for that technique’s heyday. Titan was at the forefront and the intersection between the two worlds with hand-drawn characters, hand-painted backgrounds, and 3D effects and environments. There’s something about its mix-medium, futuristic aesthetic that’s utterly unique. Trapped in an interstitial place visually and tonally, Titan fell through the divide. For its bold ambition and for being an anomaly in a landscape of talking animals and reformatted fairytales, it deserves greater consideration as an artifact of its time.