The new science fiction cartoon "Titan AE" achieves something I'm not sure I have ever experienced in an animated feature before -- action scenes that are as viscerally thrilling as those in a well-made live-action movie.
That is thanks to outstanding Computer Generated Image (CGI) animation that makes the spaceships and settings come alive in 3D -- though the characters themselves are drawn in traditional animation.
Of course, thrills and suspense require good characters and a good story, which is something I haven't seen in ANY science fiction film in quite a while.
Another achievement is that "Titan AE" actually nails the epic feel it is aiming for-- something all end of the world sci-fi stories long for; but most fall flat, get ponderous, become plain silly -- or all of the above.
The story literally gets off to a bang, as a military leader evacuates his son from Earth, just before it is blown to smithereens by the evil Druj in the year 3028. Dad promises he will find his son, Cale, but first he has a mission that is the last hope of mankind.
3042 finds Cale (the voice of Matt Damon) a bitter, cynical, and lonely young man who works on a salvage crew in a far flung corner of the universe, having never seen his father again. He is recruited by a gruff adventurer, Captain Korso, (Bill Pullman) to find the ship, Titan, which contains the technology to start a new world for humans. The key to finding the Titan is in the ring Cale's father left him.
Rounding out the crew is the beautiful pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore), Corso's grouchy first mate Preen (Nathan Lane) weapons expert Stith (Jeanie Garofalo) and the geeky scientist, Gune (John Leguizamo). All of the voices and characters are engaging, with Damon doing particularly nice work.
Cale reluctantly joins Korso, because the Drej have also picked up his trail and are trying to capture him. The crew sets off on a wild adventure that is partly mystery, partly a voyage of self discovery and redemption -- but mostly a wild, hair raising chase.
Like all good modern attempts at creating a mythic story, from "Star Wars" to "The Matrix," "Titan AE" is a pastiche of classic themes, religious imagery, and elements of other similarly themed yarns. There are nods here to everything from Huck Finn, to Noah's Ark, from Ulysses, to "Superman," with a quest and a character mix that is not unlike "Star Wars" -- but is more exciting than the last two "Star Wars" chapters put together.
If there is any knock on this movie, it is that the elements might be a touch TOO familiar.
Two outstanding chase sequences stand out, both for their white knuckle excitement, and for their visual beauty. One is a chase on a watery planet that features glowing hydrogen trees that burst into flame if collided with; the other is a cat and mouse pursuit through a space ice field that is even better than the asteroid sequence in "The Empire Strikes Back."
Director Don Bluth has made his career making almost-Disney-class animated features like "Anastasia" and "The Land Before Time" (which Disney in turn copied in its rather bland 3D current feature, "Dinosaur")-- though one could say that "The Secret of NIMH" is a legitimate classic.
In "Titan AE," he blows Disney out of the water, turning in the best non-"Toy Story" animated feature since "Beauty and the Beast." Thankfully, he also never lets up on the story's spirit of adventure by including a cuddly talking animal of some description, or pauses the action for a boring song.
For boys who love science fiction adventure, (or those who can remember being one) "Titan AE" is the perfect movie. But everyone else is guaranteed a good time, too.