Generation VHS: Titan A.E.

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This week, The Belcourt is closing up shop on their Saturday morning Don Bluth retrospective with the oft-debated All Dogs Go to Heaven. I don’t necessarily recall viewing that one in my youth, although I do remember seeing and enjoying the Bluth-less, Charlie Sheen-led sequel All Dogs Go to Heaven 2. Hey, at the age of three, watching brightly lit movies about talking animals just feels right.

Let’s revisit Mr. Bluth for a quick second. I spoke about his illustrious history in a previous CL post, but for Gen. VHS purposes, he deserved another mention.

As a kid, I had no idea who Don Bluth was. I had no idea that he was the guy who inspired the Land Before Time direct-to-video releases I gobbled up before nap time. I had seen the original Land Before Time (the only one Bluth was involved with), The Pebble and the Penguin, A Troll in Central Park and Anastasia, but I had no clue who to thank. Sure, I knew who Walt Disney was, but Bluth? No dice.

Regardless of my lack of knowledge, it’s paramount to note that Don Bluth had a huge impact on my childhood with his catalog of off-brand novelties. If you or your kids enjoyed digging into Bluth’s filmography, I may have one more for you to screen: his final film, the dystopian actioneer Titan A .E.

I remember Titan A.E. as one of those movies I had toys for, but never saw in theaters. Yes, it was a strange phenomenon, but for a fradey-cat kid, it was much easier to purchase one of those cool-looking action figures at Toys“R”Us as opposed to journeying out to the multiplex to see whatever frightening horror awaited me.

OK, quick story time: It was the late summer of 1998. The changing leaves bristled in the air as the Woodroof family took a trip to the Regal Bellevue 12 to see Air Bud: Golden Receiver. Ah yes, old Buddy, the sports-playing pup of old. What a gas! As we settled into our seats to enter the huddle with Buddy and friends, the trailers began to play. “What a strange compilation of previews to show before a Disney movie,” I thought. “Pay them no mind!”

As the film began to show, a young child began to drive down the street on a tricycle as the creepy music began to play. Halloween decorations lined the lampposts. “Well, football season does interweave with fall festivities,” I thought. That was … until the opening title hit the screen.

HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER

I’ve never seen a more discombobulated group of crying kiddos and peeved parents. The kind folks at Regal had accidentally put the wrong film reel in the projector, almost sending a crowd of children into the newest Halloween movie. After a hearty apology from the management, the kiddie film began, and my innocence ended.

From that point on, I swore off viewing anything that would rattle my sensitive cage. Countless titles fell to the wayside as I shunned the scary and uncomfortable (as well as that particular theater until the year 2000).

But some of the films had a rad line of toys, and for a kid with a vivid imagination, there was no way I was about to pass up the opportunity of adding to my arsenal of plastic goodies. The Lost World: Jurassic Park? I’ll take the dino toy, not the ticket. Men in Black II? Nod Ya Head if you want an Agent J toy! Shake your head if you want to see that movie with the gigantic green plant monster thing. X-Men? Just having a toy Wolverine was fine with me.

Titan A.E. was just one of the numerous films I forwent in its theatrical release despite buying up the toy line. Yes, it’s fair to surmise I was a wee bit of a hypocritical crybaby, but that’s youth for you.

I remember going to see a screening of the Bruce Willis vehicle Disney’s The Kid with a few family members. As we walked down the hallway at the Carmike Bellevue 8, I noticed the Titan A.E. moniker above the theater next door. I asked a relative, “What happens if they accidentally put that movie in our theater?” Visions of Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later danced in my head. “Well, we’ll see the fight to save humanity,” he replied. I’ll stick with Bruce, thank ya very much.

So, when it finally was released on DVD, I perked up the courage to give Titan A.E. a go. And man, what decision it was. Titan A.E. was a strange film to view. But, it was almost immediately satisfying, big in part to the animation, which was so cutting-edge for its time. Mixing hand-drawn with state-of-the-art CGI? Sign me up.

The film itself revolves around Matt Damon’s Cale, a renegade young adult who had to escape planet Earth as a boy after the vile Drej aliens (think electric blue robots) savaged the place due to the fear of a scientific advancement the human race made. Cale’s got the typical daddy issue blues after his pop flew away on the Titan, a massive orb-ship carrying a bunch of DNA and the capability to create a new planet.

Working on a far-away outpost and not getting along with his alien co-workers, Cale is recruited by Bill Pullman’s Korso, the guy-who-will-briefly-be-considered-a-father-figure-but-spoiler-alert-turns-out-to-be-full-of-crap character. Captain Korso and his crew (Drew Barrymore’s butt-kicking love interest Akima, Nathan Lane’s pompous Preed, Janeane Garofalo’s stern Stith and John Leguizamo’s eccentric Gune) are in the search for the Titan, trying to beat the Drej to the landing site, which Cale has implemented in a ring (a gift from his wayward dad, who was a lead designer on the Titan or something). And then the movie happens, complete with a bunch of throwaway dialogue, action scenes and “surprise, surprise” twists.

I watched the movie for the first time in years on Monday night, and unfortunately, Titan A.E. wasn’t that great on a repeated viewing.

This week’s Generation VHS lesson for all you grown-up kids at home: Sometimes, nostalgia just simply doesn’t hold up.

Take last week’s installment, for example. “Runaway Brain” is one of those rare finds from my childhood that ended up being just as bizarre and wonderful as I remembered. The other two films in the series, Space Jam and Good Burger, have also stood the test of time in terms of quality.

But Titan A.E. is the first in our retrospective that, well, isn’t all that great at second glance.

Now, I don’t want to sound too critical. I think Titan A.E. has its merits. The universe Bluth and fellow director Gary Goldman craft is something to awe. The intricate character design and imagination behind the setting were almost revolutionary for its time. The film’s CGI may look atrocious now (the Drej being the worst to age — wowzers), but for its time, not half bad. The overall story itself is also workable, with some of the humorous banter sticking (I’ll credit co-writer Joss Whedon for that. Yes, folks. Joss Whedon helped write Titan A.E.).

But, some of the film just lands with a resounding thud. The plot develops at such a predictable pace (sans the moronic “gotcha” moments), and the characters are so stock that it’s hard to develop any sort of emotional connection with the movie. For every joke the script gets right, the serious wordplay comes across as cantankerously stiff. I’m in the middle on the action sequences, with the third act being the only part to provide any sort of stirring fun.

I’ve also never really understood the desire to interweave the film with late-’90s garage rock (Lit’s “Over My Head” being the best example). I suppose it gives the film a unique swagger — an angst that tries to emulate what young Cale is feeling during the film’s events. Hey, maybe Bluth just likes rock music. I don’t judge. But, the music selection stands out as being tonally out-there.

And, come now. If you’re going to use Creed’s “Higher” in the ad campaign so heavily, you had better put it in the actual movie. No signs of Creed here, which, for this ’90s child, is another fault.

I don’t think Titan A.E. is all that great of a movie, but I think it deserves cult status. It’s the final film by one of Gen. VHS’s most prominent figures, and it’s also a different piece of movie history that deserves a watch, regardless of how mediocre it may be. (You’re in luck. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.)

Sometimes, the film we remember as a kid don’t retain their greatness. Titan A.E. is a film that has a plaque in the halls of Gen. VHS, but it’s best remembered as a unique memory instead of a quality flick.

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