Most artists would probably tell you that they hope their last work is their best work, that their final project is something reflective of everything they’ve learned, every failure or setback they’ve suffered, every discovery that got them to where they are. Titan A.E., the bafflingly star-studded (as of now) final feature-length film of legendary animation director Don Bluth, is very much not that. It is not his best work, not his most unforgettable or distinctive work, and not at all a distillation of the style that, for a couple decades, represented an alternative to Disney.
As the movie turns 20, it is currently Bluth’s last work. Despite being an idea he was handed rather than one he came up with himself, it still features some of the man’s directorial hallmarks. Bluth was trying out new stuff, going for a different type of story than he’d told before, and by virtue of his position heading up Fox Animation Studios, the movie had major studio clout behind the whole operation.
It nevertheless failed, and brought about the end of Fox Animation Studios—and has for 20 years more or less marked the end of Bluth’s influence on mainstream animation. I can’t help but look back at the 20 years between now and his last feature and think about how the industry has changed since.
In the 31st century, Earth is under imminent attack by an alien species, the Drej. The young boy Cale escapes moments before the planet is entirely destroyed, scattering humanity to the far reaches of the universe. The film picks up as Cale (now voiced by Matt Damon) has reached adulthood as a cynical blue-collar worker, ground down by a life of being treated as a second class citizen. (Having your planet blown up tends to have that effect on a species, as Cale puts it.)
The story falls right into the beats of a Campbell/Lucas hero’s journey, as Cale survives a Drej attempt on his life and reluctantly falls in with fellow human drifter Korso (Bill Pullman, reporting for alien-stomping duty right on the heels of Independence Day). Cale is the chosen one—his DNA unlocks a map that leads to the Titan, a ship created by his father (Ron Perlman) that has freaked out the Drej so much they’ll do anything necessary to exterminate what remains of humanity.
Korso captains a ship crewed by assorted riff-raff who are all weird aliens voiced by Jeanane Garofalo, John Leguizamo and Nathan Lane, and fellow human and obvious love interest Akima (Drew Barrymore). The performances are all distinctive, and the characters memorable even if they aren’t given too much time to develop. The crew races off to fill in the gaps of Cale’s map, constantly running and gunning through swarms of Drej as they do. There are a few imaginative set pieces along the way, but as unique as they look, it doesn’t do much to get over a mostly predictable story. Cale is Luke Skywalker with a slightly more cynical layer of grunge on him. At least one of the double-crosses in the last reel of the film doesn’t make much sense and is immediately backpedaled anyhow. The Drej (rendered entirely in computer-generated 3D) suffer both from looking dated and from being completely faceless and uninteresting as villains.
It’s not a bad movie, though. Bluth’s projects have always had a patina of grit over them, a lived-in feeling of dilapidation and danger that set them apart from Disney animation’s shinier disposition. It’s the sort of sensibility that turned An American Tail (1986), a cartoon musical about Russian immigrant mice, into one of the most visually stunning animated films of the ’80s, and it actually makes perfect sense to apply it to a Star Wars-esque space adventure like Titan A.E.. The drifter colonies, trader ships and desolate moons (and the exotic creatures who live on them) all look comparatively glossy when you hold them up next to anthropomorphic rodent Tammany Hall, but if you watch how the characters and the creatures move, that same feeling is there.
Bluth and fellow director Gary Goldman joined Fox Animation in 1994 after their previous enterprise, Bluth Sullivan studios, went out of business. The studio’s first original feature, Anastasia in 1997, had been a financial success that proved Bluth still had the capability to produce lavish animated features provided you gave him the budget to get the job done. It seems like Fox gave Bluth and Goldman every conceivable accommodation: Motion capture and green screens to give animators reference points for all of the sci-fi props and zero-gravity set pieces, free reign to get musical artists to write a bespoke soundtrack, and enough cash to put together a cast of celebrities moviegoers recognized from recent genre movies.
It might have been a lackluster story or the public’s confused reaction to an animated film that was rated PG but clearly should’ve been PG-13 considering it features aliens getting exploded and necks being broken, but it didn’t take off. The film flopped and lost Fox $100 million by one estimate, and the animation studio was shuttered soon after. Bluth has headlined a few projects in the intervening years, but has not directed another feature-length film since. Netflix has reportedly picked up a movie based on the videogame Dragon’s Lair that Bluth made, but it will be a live-action film, for which Bluth was only listed as producer.
Bluth’s animation always skewed just a bit more subversive. His films were shaded with an ever so slightly darker sensibility than anything you got from Disney’s last few 2D features, and which is almost wholly absent from anything in the 3D era (apart from a few spine-tingling entries from Laika Studios—another house whose inimitable work never seems to reap the commercial success it deserves). In the time since Bluth stopped making features, 2D animation has all but vanished from theaters, supplanted entirely by 3D. Those 3D films are often gorgeous to look at, and to say they require less care or craft than traditional 2D, hand-animated features is to short-change the artists who labor to make them.
The older technique can’t be replicated, though, and Titan A.E., which tried to fuse the two styles while preserving the magic of 2D, is a reminder that it’s fast becoming a lost art.
Kenneth Lowe is in over his head. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.