The Surprising Importance of ‘Titan A.E.’ (2000) 20 Years Later

Titan A.E. (2000) isn’t likely to see much remembrance for its just-passed 20th anniversary, and this is both inevitable and tragic. It was a rare sci-fi cartoon at the tail end of the fairy tale and legend driven Disney Renaissance – a hard sell even then – but it was ambitious within its genre and created by animation legends Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. However, it recouped about half of its budget, sinking its studio and marking the end of its creators’ careers. Today it’s as much a fun, carefully created piece of entertainment as it ever was, while also standing as an unjustly muted last gasp of a particular era of animation.

Our hero Cale (Matt Damon) is a downtrodden, cynical white guy who finds himself tasked with seeking the Titan, a spaceship hidden by his missing father (Ron Perlman) which might restore a diminished human race that has fled the destroyed Earth. It could be reduced to being a combination of daddy issues and a chosen one storyline like many major movies, but this would be to ignore its unique element: heart.

The characters don’t feel like archetypes, being well-realised enough for audiences to genuinely be invested in their journeys. Witty, somewhat self-aware writing does abound, and it’s no surprise that Joss Whedon – famed for his zesty, pop-culture peppered scripts for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers – played a part in the screenwriting. However, rather than being a quip fest it’s a script with life; you believe quickly in the bonds between Cale, his crush Akima (Drew Barrymore), and mentor/father-figure Korso (Bill Pullman). The character moments that evolve feel organic and, whilst reminiscent of those in genre forebears, seem uniquely, memorably tied to this story.

The craftsmanship of this film means elements that shouldn’t necessarily work manage to beat the odds. The combination of traditional animation and computer graphics is one that seems obvious and unnecessary in many works of its era, but here proves essential in some awe-inspiring scenes, whether it’s in the destruction of our planet or a tense, clever chase through an ice field. Perhaps more of its era is the earnest rock music score that wouldn’t feel out of place in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, yet here it works – elevating the infectious enthusiasm and optimism of the story at hand. The science fiction facade might have been new for Bluth and Goldman but their skill and care certainly reflects an impressive filmography.

Disney put out similar efforts in the years to come, but with much less of the endearing authenticity that their predecessor carries. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was released a year after Titan A.E., a Jules Verne style adventure similarly presenting a motley crew of characters, majestic vistas, and a mixture of love and betrayal; yet it felt collectively simply a whirlwind of perfunctory plot points. Treasure Planet, released only a year after that critical and commercial disappointment, continued this failing trend. Despite the inherently heartwarming nature of the father-son relationship between Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Long John Silver (Brian Murray) – naturally taken straight from its source-material of Treasure Island – imaginative storytelling and aesthetics were in short supply. Mass marketing couldn’t save obvious blandness, and the critical reception reflected these weak attempts to reach new audiences.

The failure of these films didn’t just come just from an adherence to convention but their rejection of animation’s conventions. Disney’s movies were long-gestating passion projects for white, male, nerdy creators keen to create their own takes on the fun which they grew up on, but they faced the challenge of fitting them into shapes suitable for audiences suited to anthropomorphic animals and earworm tunes. The result? Works that appeared to lack zest for those wanting pure action and lacking whimsy for those wanting family-friendly escapism. Disney, in its love of the musical movie, had undermined its industry’s possibilities of moving beyond a particularly gentle template.

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman suffered from the hegemonic, single-minded power of Disney throughout their careers. Their greatest works could have been shifted into ones suitable for the House of Mouse, All Dogs Go To Heaven and Anastasia being examples of unique, emotive, character-driven movie musicals. They’re a less slick mix than anything produced by their competitor, however: the singing being less refined, the visuals noticeably traditional, and the themes more mature. All those elements are enough to put off people who expect slick, clean, and easily-approachable spectacle. A challenge to Disney’s rule only came with the adoption of dazzling 3D visuals by the likes of DreamWorks; however it’s telling that their first industry-shaking release was fairy-tale derived Shrek. There still wasn’t room for less refined, more confrontational storytelling.

Titan A.E. may not have had a challenging storyline, however it was a passionately made film that deserved better; a bittersweet finale to the careers of two creative legends and a sad reminder of culture’s tendency to follow the path of least resistance. There’s an alternate world where the film ends up a much-enjoyed piece of entertainment, enough to compete with then-contemporary live action adventures like The Mummy – but unfortunately it instead exists in one where corporate power is so hard to shake that eventually its supremacy becomes something that isn’t questioned. There is only so long creators of interesting but ignored works can remain persistent underdogs: eventually they’ll be gone, their demise a reminder to those paying attention as to how power begets more power. It’s worth revisiting, then, an animation staging a quiet resistance, and to consider the mechanisms, money, and marketing that leave the richest stories treated as the culturally poorest.