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The notorious animated film Titan A.E. wasn’t even supposed to be animated

The last film by Fox Animation renders sci-fi tropes with spectacular art

Graphic grid featuring six cartoon images from Disney’s Titan AE movie Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

Like so many other studios in the 1990s, 20th Century Fox wanted in on the box-office gold rush around the Disney Renaissance. Unfortunately, the studio started bringing feature animation to theaters too late, right at the point where Disney itself was facing diminishing returns from its animated musicals. After distributing a few animated films produced by outside studios, Fox partnered with former Disney animators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Back in the mid-’80s, Bluth and Goldman’s Sullivan Bluth Studios had given Disney a run for its money with movies like An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

While Fox Animation’s first theatrical feature, Anastasia, paralleled the Disney formula with its big show-stopping musical numbers and coming-of-age story centered around a plucky heroine, its next film, the hard sci-fi action story Titan A.E., spun in the complete opposite direction. Just a few weeks after the film hit theaters to middling reviews and poor box-office returns, Fox Animation shuttered its operations. And yet, while Titan A.E. was much maligned for leaning too hard on overused science-fiction tropes, it was the first taste of grandiose space adventure for younger audiences, and it earned a special place in a lot of childhood memories.

cale piloting a ship Image: Fox Animation

What it’s about

In the distant future, Earth has been destroyed by a mysterious alien race called the Drej, and humans are dispersed across the galaxy. Salvage-yard worker Cale (Matt Damon) learns from spaceship pilot Korso (Bill Pullman) that the ring Cale inherited from his late father reveals the location of a mysterious project designed to save humanity. Cale joins Korso and his team to find Project Titan, the Drej hot on their trail.

A little backstory…

Here’s the thing about Titan A.E.: it wasn’t supposed to be an animated movie, let alone an animated Don Bluth movie.

While floating around development at 20th Century Fox, the film was originally conceived as a live-action feature. A few screenwriters and directors tried to make it work, including The Tick creator Ben Edlund, but it never took off. According to Gary Goldman in an interview with Animation World, Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic thought the film might look good in CG. After finishing up work on the direct-to-video Anastasia spinoff Bartok the Magnificent, the burgeoning Fox Animation department had no current project in the works, so Titan A.E. landed in its hands.

Screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish) came aboard the project in February 1998, hired to polish the dialogue, but he ended up sticking around for a few weeks longer to work on the story. Though the project had already transitioned to an animated feature, he says, the studio was still trying to figure out what type of animation it would be.

“Even over the four to six weeks that I was on board the project, we went from being all traditional animation to completely CG, sort of like Ice Age animation, to the hybrid that it became,” August told Polygon in a recent interview about the film. As a writer, that didn’t affect his work much, but he recounts an interesting tidbit about the process: “I would get these notes […] saying, ‘Oh, okay, so characters can be underwater, but they can’t be wet.’”

Bluth and Goldman had yet to come on the project at that point. August can’t recall the director on board at the time, but he says he met with Ice Age director Chris Wedge to discuss the movie. The development process felt more like he was working on a live-action project than an animated one, particularly because the studio had no idea how the final film would look. While animated features tend to have a lot of back-and-forth between screenwriters and storyboarders, live-action movies tend to be more linear: write the script, shoot the scene, edit the movie.

“I was writing that script in a vacuum,” says August. “It was like I was doing a rewrite on a live-action feature. I wasn’t thinking about the animation on a daily basis.”

Goldman and Bluth joined the project sometime after August departed. Joss Whedon finalized the script further. Neither Goldman or Bluth had ever worked on a science-fiction movie before, but they took on the project regardless. Fox really wanted Titan A.E. to appeal to a young adult male demographic, citing Star Wars as a reference point.

The studio finally solidified that the movie’s animation style would be a hybrid of CGI and traditional animation. With directors on board, a look set, and a script finalized, Titan A.E. was ready to take flight.

What went wrong

akima trapped in some green crystal pod Image: Fox Animation

Unfortunately, Fox Animation went through a massive downsizing in 1999, with more than 300 staff members laid off. The entire studio shuttered in 2000, just a few weeks after Titan A.E. came out. The movie was finished at a handful of other studios, including Blue Sky Studios, which went on to make Ice Age two years down the line. Because Fox Animation was basically running on a skeleton crew during post-production, Bluth said at a 2010 AnimationNation special event that much of the film’s promotion and distribution was halted.

Even without production woes, Titan A.E. is a tricky movie to love. In previous iterations of this series, we’ve looked at the split in genre in this era of animation, with some films leaning sharply in the comedic direction, and others delving into sci-fi and action. Titan A.E. is firmly in the latter category, even more so than Treasure Planet or The Iron Giant: it’s dark and gritty, and the directors take the story very seriously. While Treasure Planet, The Iron Giant, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire still felt similar in scope and message of the sweeping fantasies that defined the Disney Renaissance, Titan A.E. is a hard science-fiction movie, using animation as a medium rather than a genre. While that doesn’t necessarily spell box-office doom, the American mindset then (and to this day) associates Western animation with a family-friendly tone and story.

“I’d say it’s not a ‘mother friendly’ movie. Although we haven’t left the mothers and children out,” Goldman told Animation World magazine in 2000. “There is some swearing, some sexual innuendo, it’s intense … there’s a lot of violence. I don’t think anybody under 8 years old should see this film.”

Fox Animation’s previous theatrical movie, Anastasia, basically follows the Disney formula closely as possible, and it did decently at the box office, earning $140 million from a $50 million budget — Don Bluth’s first financially successful film since 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven. (For context, Hercules, which came out the same year, was considered a middling success at Disney, making $252 million from an $85 million budget) . But within the three years between Anastasia and Titan A.E., audience tastes shifted, Disney began to rethink its own formula, and other studios took a crack at it too. Titan A.E. swung too hard in the opposite direction, with the very specific goal of being edgy and cool enough to target 12- to 17-year-old boys. That, unfortunately, jarred too sharply with audience expectations, even as audiences tried to figure out what they wanted next.

Why we love it today

akima piloting a ship, with cale at her side Image: Fox Animation

Titan A.E. came out to mixed reception from critics, who called it a hodge-podge of other science-fiction movies. But one response was near-universal: it looked great.

In fact, it looks so good that it’s easy to wonder why more science fiction isn’t animated. Unlike 2002’s Treasure Planet, which reimagines space travel, Titan A.E. sticks to a tried-and-true expectation of how we imagine humanity will take to the stars. The locations — especially the space stations, like the junkyard where Cale works at the beginning of the movie, and New Bangkok, where dispersed human drifters have built a colony — feel lifted from media like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. But instead of being rendered with clunky setpieces and special effects that don’t hold up after 20 years, Titan A.E.’s animation still seems fresh, and the planets, ships, and space scenes look dynamic and captivating.

One of the most breathtaking moments of the movie happens when Cale and pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore) navigate through a planet’s icy rings, Korso and his team on their tail. It’s a tense, tight chase scene, as Akima steers the ship through floating blocks of ice, and each ship’s reflection confuses the other. It never would have looked as good in live action. The only CG of the movie that does sharply seem out of place are the Drej, the aliens bent on exterminating humans. But because they’re beings made of pure energy, designed to be mechanical and lifeless compared to organic humans, their jarring designs work with the overall threat of the movie, as they want to wipe out humanity.

Neither Bluth nor Goldman had worked on a science-fiction movie before, so while many of the ship locations and human character designs look on-par for space movies set in the future, like The Fifth Element and Total Recall, a lot of the alien species and planets instead look on-par for Bluth and Goldman’s previous animated films. Cale and the team land on a mysterious planet where the alien creatures resemble giant bats, almost plucked right out of the duo’s 1982 movie The Secret of Nimh.

korso and stith surrounded by aliens Image: Fox Animation

Most of Titan A.E.’s 94-minute runtime is just the characters getting from one place to another, showing off spectacular setpieces, like a planet covered in a rusty-red liquid, with large hydrogen trees made up of orbs that float, and later explode. The plot isn’t particularly groundbreaking, and the characters aren’t particularly original. But while they’re a bit cliché for science fiction, they are striking when it comes to mainstream Western animation. Following more adult characters and dealing with the possible end of humanity, as mankind struggles to find its way in the vast expanse of outer space, is a far cry from the usual Disney musicals, centered on teenagers journeying toward self-acceptance and romance.

Certainly among the biggest critiques of Titan A.E. was the fact that many of the plot points, story elements, and characters seemed lifted from science-fiction staples like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. But Titan A.E. was also the first encounter with the genre for a lot of kids, the first taste of spaceship chase sequences, the destruction of planet Earth, and humanity venturing into the great beyond. The tropes don’t play out as cliché for young viewers experiencing them for the first time: instead, they’re fantastical, daring, and cool — the exact takeaway that Fox Animation aimed for back when the movie was in development. It just took a little extra time — and the studio folding — for that to stick.

Titan A.E. is available to rent on Amazon Prime.