In 1997, Don Bluth’s Anastasia was a smash hit, earning $140 million at the box office.
His next film, Titan AE, lost a hundred million dollars, ended Bluth’s career as a film director, and bankrupted Fox’s animation wing. What went wrong?
A brief consideration of the film: it’s a science fiction animated feature featuring hand-drawn characters in computer-generated environments. A thousand years in the future humanity has built a planetary creation device called the Titan, and attracted the attention of a race of energy-based beings called the Drej, who blow up the the Earth. Fifteen years later, the surviving refugees – including Cale Tucker, whose father piloted Titan away to parts unknown on the eve of destruction – now work as intergalactic miners and scrappers among nearby aliens. It’s a rough universe, and if you don’t have a planet, you ain’t shit.
The plot is casual, and probably a spec script. The narrative is sprinkled with all the expected developments: Cale is sassy and doesn’t fit in, he has to learn to believe in himself, and so on. The Drej (who are still hunting for the Titan, and believe that Cale is the key to finding it) are blue floating polygons who exist to be gunned down. There’s a platonic female love interest who, one gratuitous moment aside (more like Drew BARINGMORE, ha ha?), might as well be Cale’s sister. Some depth exists in the charismatic but self-interested Korso, but the film doesn’t know what to do with his complications.
The science fiction setting is Star Wars derived, meaning it’s a WWI/WWII adventure set in space. You can fix up a broken spaceship using spare parts and axle grease. Stowing away on a spacecraft is as simple as hoodwinking a guard. Space combat involves dodging laser blasts with a joystick, while your attackers ominously beep closer on a green radar screen. It evokes the world of Biggles as much as it does actual space. Cale’s living quarters contain relics from the lost Earth…but they’re all quaint anachronisms from the 20th century, such as a bisque doll, a hand-cranked camera, and a china cup. The movie seems split between two times. It’s set both a thousand years in the future and a hundred years in the past.
The Titan, when it’s discovered, looks rather like the Death Star, except it creates planets instead of blowing them. Again, spec script. “Borrow ideas from other movies, but twist them so they’re yours”. Likewise, we get Waterworld’s conceit of the hero literally having a map on their body – but instead of a tattoo, it’s written in Cale’s DNA.
The story didn’t set my imagination on fire, but I’m an adult, and this is a film made for children. Titan AE is edgier than the average Disney film, but that just means its intended audience has an age two digits long. It’s fine to borrow when your audience is encountering most of these tropes for the first time, but it’s a little disappointing, because Titan AE would have worked as an adult film. I don’t mean Heavy Metal style tits and gore. I mean more of a mature, grounded tone, more thought, more wonder, a slower build and a higher climax instead of an endless sugar rush of chases, fights, more chases, etc.
There’s one or two moments where we see the shape of what Titan AE that could have been, like a statue writhing inside a block of marble. I liked the cool cyberpunk shanty town. And the final scene draws visual inspiration from Moebius’s endless horizon-spanning wastes. But in the end, this aspect of Titan AE is left frustratatingly unexplored. All it shares with the adult animated films of yore is that it made no money.
But storytelling is Titan AE‘s weak point. Its strength is its visuals, which are incandescently beautiful. There’s a ton of great background work, often featuring actual COLOR(tm), which is something Bluth forgets to include more than I like.
As mentioned, the environments are computer-generated, and the way the hand-drawn characters are composited into them is usually extremely well done. This movie does for CGI what Roger Rabbit did for live action – it puts cel-shaded heroes in a computer-generated world, and has them believably take up space and interact with their surroundings.
Look at the above clip. Look at how naturally Korso walks up, weaving his body around obstacles in his path. Out of commercially released animated films up to 2000, maybe only Disney’s Tarzan has a better union of computer-rendered and hand-drawn images.
Animation is an odd thing: in theory computers can render anything. In practice (given you have a budget and limited computing power), there are things they can’t easily do. And these limitations are almost the reverse of live action. In live action, it’s hard and expensive to show a car plummeting out of a burning building. In animation, it’s hard and expensive to show a character opening a door, drinking a glass of water, or adjusting her hair. Animation is a game of how easily you can hide your limits, and Titan AE acquits itself well. Not without sacrifices, though. Screenwriter John August remembers having to write the movie around such directives as “the characters can be underwater, but they can’t be wet.”
Titan AE runs into serious problems in its final ten minutes. The film just ends. It’s like the story abruptly files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The Titan is discovered, activated, and instantly destroys all narrative tension. Note that the Death Star didn’t belong to the Rebel Alliance, it belonged to the Empire. It’s hard to make a showdown compelling when the heroes have a weapon of literally godlike power – and it raises questions such as “if humanity was capable of building things like this, why were the Drej ever a threat to begin with?”
The movie ends with haunting visuals of a blank slate of a planet – and a new tomorrow for the human race. It’s pretty, but an artificially simple ending, leaving the deeper implications of the plot unresolved.
Even the film’s visuals suffer in the final minutes. Did they run out of time? Money? Both? How else to explain embarrassing shots like this, where the animated passengers look as flat as postcards (and check out the orange background underneath the third man from the left’s face due to a misaligned clipping mask.).
The film might be the fourth greatest Bluth work – worse than An American Tail, A Land Before Time, and the Secret of NIMH, but (slightly) better than Anastasia and All Dogs Go to Heaven, and much better than all the rest (A Troll in Central Park et al). That’s not bad. It could have gone further. A simple and unsatisfyingly resolved story goes a surprising way when it looks pretty. But far enough?
Despite its many strengths, the film capital-f Failed so hard it took down a production company with it. Why?
There’s one explanation: the film was a perpetual pass-along project that nobody wanted to finish, and once it was finished, nobody wanted to promote it.
But there’s a different and more interesting theory, written by Alan Williams on Quora.
One of the better theories I’ve read about this involves the timing and promotion for the movie.
In May of 2000, “Battlefield Earth” was released…and BOMBED. It was critically panned, it did horribly at the box office, and pretty much became a punch-line overnight. This is a film that is routinely mentioned in conversations of “Worst Movies of all Time”.
A month later, “Titan: After Earth” was released.
Fox had promoted “Titan: A.E.” as “Titan: After Earth” quite a bit before it’s release, and well before the release of “Battlefield Earth”. There was a shift in the ad copy to the “A.E.” tag late in it’s promotion cycle, but it was already out there.
So of course, the theory goes that the somewhat similar titles helped to doom the animated movie.
Personally, I give quite a bit of credit to this theory. It’s sort of hard to understate how BIG “BE” bombed. Cratered. It took a lot of folks down with it for quite some time. Franchise Pictures, the production company, was later investigated by the FBI for artificially inflating the production costs of it’s projects, and thus, scamming investors out of their money. John Travolta was said to have fired his long time manager over issues surrounding the film.
Is it true? It’s plausible, but I’m skeptical. I can’t find any pre-release material describing the film as “Titan: After Earth”. And you wouldn’t think Scientology/Travolta vehicles would have a lot of market overlap with fans of Titan: AE.
Fire a .22 round, and a casing will go plink on the ground. If you pick up this casing, clean it, crimp it, fill it with powder, seat a new primer and bullet, it will be as good as new.
But when you fire and reload the same casing ten or twenty times, it will eventually not be be good as new. The metal becomes embrittled, prone to cracking and spalling; the walls will be thin, fluxed outward by temperature and pressure; the primer might no longer sit properly; and it will be liable to misfire. There’s variability both in material – in general, brass casings handle repeated firing better than steel or aluminum ones – and in individual casings, but eventually metallurgy will distort your casing past the point of no return. You can never unfire a bullet.
Gunfire changes bullets. It also changes the men firing them. It’s a common pop culture conceit that war irreversibly transforms men – hauls them across an event horizon to sub- or super-humanity. Veterans return to their families and they’re not the same: they quiver, and twitch, are prone to explosive anger and paralyzing fear. Audy Murphy is the US Army’s greatest war hero, credited with 240 kills by one account. Yet he returned from the war a post-traumatic stress case who slept with a gun under his pistol – a gun that he’d use to threaten and terrorize his first wife. But for God’s grace, his kill count would be 241.
Full Metal Jacket is a latter-day Kubrick film about the above transformation. It depicts the lives of several soldiers (or aspirant soldiers) subjected to the furnace of the Vietnam war. Some crack. Others “survive”, but only in biological terms, and not without jettisoning parts of their humanity. All seem to have lost something.
It’s half of a great movie. That’s not bad: most films are zero percent great movie. But it’s impossible not to watch it without feeling some regret: Full Metal Jacket ends up being much smaller than its shadow. I wish it was great all the way through.
Here’s the thing: nearly everyone agrees which half of Full Metal Jacket is good. The boot camp scenes at the start – focusing on the relationship between a bullying drill sergeant and a fat, clumsy recruit – are as compelling as anything ever Kubrick put to film. They’re hilarious, cringeworthy, raw, and so thematically satisfying that when they end, it feels like the movie ends. It’s always a surprise to me when it doesn’t.
R Lee Ermey is fantastic, and carries the movie on his shoulders. He struts up and down a line of terrified recruits like a demonic rooster, reeling off pungently vile insults like stanzas of metered poetry. I’ve heard veterans describe boot camp as “the funniest place you’re not allowed to laugh”, and I kept thinking about that as I saw Ermey say stuff like “unorganized, grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit” and “slimy little Communist shit twinkle-toed cocksuckers“, ready to dump all the shit in the sky upon the first private to crack a smile.
How accurate is this? I remember a discussion on IMDB’s defunct comments bored – half the vets were saying “This is fantasy” and the rest were saying “This was my boot camp experience, exactly.”
Certain things seem right, based on what I’ve heard from friends who’ve served. Dumping a recruit’s entire kit all over the floor because one little thing isn’t squared away? That happens. Punishing an entire class for one recruit’s screw-up? That, too. Ermey’s behavior has a cruel kind of logic behind it. He’s weeding out “non-hackers”. If you’re going to fail, you’d better fail in Parris Island, rather than in the field, when lives are on the line.
Vincent D’Onofrio also inhabits his role well: that of a helpless wide-eyed frog getting smashed to pulp by a baseball bat. After weeks of abuse, his eyes start changing, and the drill instructor thinks he’s finally taking instruction. Movie viewers, of course, are aware of dramatic arcs and might guess that something else is coming.
Later, when the protagonist Joker graduates boot camp and goes to Vietnam, the movie sort of loses the plot. It grinds out some new ideas and characters, but they’re not strongly developed. In the IMDB page, the top-voted quotations are overwhelmingly from the early scenes. Down the bottom you’ve got lines spoken in Vietnam by guys I don’t even remember being in the movie.
These scenes are tonally inconsistent. The part where Joker has to write propaganda (“we have a new directive from M.A.F. on this! In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear”!) is kind of funny, in a Dr Strangelove way. But the movie as a whole is not satire, and this scene doesn’t play nice with the darker stuff at the end of the film, which in turn doesn’t play well with a soldier having his wallet stolen by a wacky karate-chopping Vietnamese street gang.
A lot has been written about Vietnam, and the way it reflects the final falling away of Clauswitzian notions of war. No more battle lines. Your enemies dress like civilians. Your fellow soldiers behave barbarously. Up is down and left is right. You just want to escape, but even when you do, the war follows you home, haunting you. What’s it all for?
Kubrick’s film ends up confused, muddled, and existing just to exist. The perfect reflection of the Vietnam war, in other words.
Movies about animals are legally required to have a pun in the title, and An American Tail walked so that Dog With A Blog and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked could run.
It’s one of the grim, high-concept films Don Bluth made after he left Disney. Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time are famed for their craftsmanship, but they’re tough sledding, darker than any Disney film except for The Black Cauldron. A lot of people remember these films as classics. A lot of them also remember being scared and covering their eyes.
Tail is a parable about antisemitism. Fievel Mousekewitz’s family lives in a mousehole underneath a shtel in 1880’s Russia, until Cossacks burn down the shtel, and a gang of cats destroy their home.
The opening scene is kind of hilarious, with mice being chased around by fez wearing, black-mustached cats roughly the size of Shetland ponies. Their growls have been pitch-adjusted down into half-terrifying, half-comical gurgles. If the cats could breathe radioactive fire, this would be a kaiju film.
The displaced Mousekewitzes board a steamer bound for America, where (they have been told) there are no cats. Fievel unwisely ascends to the fore-deck during a storm, is blown overboard, and eventually washes ashore in a bottle. The rest of the film involves him looking for his family, along with some other complications.
Tail’s plotting is less surefooted than NIMH or Time. After the problem is established (“Fievel has lost his family!”), a number of supporting characters are dumped into the story – a friendly pigeon, a streetwise Italian mouse, a rabble-rousing agitator, a rich lady mouse, a back-slapping politician type, a helpful vegetarian cat, and so on – turning the film into an top-heavy mass of characters right when it needs to be sleek and streamlined. I remember being confused and uninvolved when I first saw it. It became a series of events. And the villain is so forgettable that I did exactly that – forgot the movie even had a villain.
And although the animation is clearly Bluth, the film looks dull next to his other films. Secret of NIMH sparkled and twinkled, as if the cel sheets were studded with jewels. The Land Before Time had the hot, ferocious glow of the old world. Tail is just plain colorless. Dark seas. Sewers. City streets blanketed in smog. Average out all the pixels in the film and you’d get a muddy green-gray.
But it’s heartfelt, for all that. And the final showdown is both exciting and clever in how it pays off IOUs incurred at the start of the movie.
Roger Ebert criticized the film for being about anti-Semitism, while not explaining this in a way that children can understanding.
One of the central curiosities of “An American Tail” is that it tells a specifically Jewish experience but does not attempt to inform its young viewers that the characters are Jewish or that the house burning was anti-Semitic. I suppose that would be a downer for the little tykes in the theater, but what do they think while watching the present version? That houses are likely to be burned down at random?
I understand his point, but children can hear the music without hearing the words. They might not know what a ghetto or a blood libel is, but they’ll have encountered playground bullies – people who pick on you because you look different, or talk weird – and when you understand that, you can sort of figure out racial or religious bigotry. We’re not meant to sense any difference between the cossacks and cats: they attack at the same time, like two heads of the same hydra.
And the Mousekewitzes are clearly different from the others in a way that transcends species. One of Fievel’s problems in America is that everyone think his name sounds silly, so he changes it to a more goyische Phil. This is matched by a shot of a human Jew likewise changing his name. It’s pretty well done and I had no problems understanding it when I was 8.
In short, a messy but compelling picture. It’s not true that Don Bluth could do no wrong, but he was doing very little of it the 80s.
Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective came out the same year, with nearly the same concept (a society of mice running parallel to ours). An American Tail is a worthy example of an animated twin film, along with Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler in 1992-3, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000, Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2002/3, etc. How to explain this? Animated films typically take years to make, which prohibits quick imitations and knockoffs.
(I got Mandela effect’d. I distinctly remember that Fievel sees whales on the ship. On the rewatch I conducted for this review: nope, no whales. His father describes “fish as big as this boat”, and we hear mournful whalesong, and a later Don Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) features whales, so maybe my brain made a lot of connections. Another example of how movies in memories are not real movies.)