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Battle For Terra

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

May 1, 2009

BATTLE FOR TERRA is a computer animated sci-fi fantasy that opened wide with almost no advertising or awareness. I thought it was the big expensive one that was an infamous flop, but it turns out I was confusing it with DELGO, which was released the year before, but not in the summer, so I don’t have to watch it. This one was actually a low budget independent production, but it did open wide and did not seem to capture the public consciousness, so I’ll go ahead and call it a Summer Fling in the tradition of TITAN A.E.

In the opening scene I was unsure I’d be able to make it through this one, because the alien race at the center of the story, the Terrians, look like this:

I pictured people working hard on this movie for months or years and then being crushed when they realized what it was gonna look like, but maybe I’m just picky about alien designs. Boxofficeflops.com says they spent just below $20 million on this (less than a third of the first SHREK’s budget), but Wikipedia says $4 million. If it’s the latter that’s insane because PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 cost $5 million and it’s a fuckin found footage video that doesn’t have an all star cast like this does! However much they had, it’s obviously not gonna have Pixar-level textures, but it doesn’t take more money to have better designs. For my money the worst decision made in this production was “Yes, I am okay with this being what the main character looks like.”

So thank God the story is pretty good. It starts in this world of Terra, a peaceful society of floating pea-pod E.T.s who fly around in wind-powered vehicles in harmony with flying whales. With better visual craftsmanship I think this would feel kinda like THE DARK CRYSTAL, though some things seem a little too close to modern human life (they have school and the teacher takes attendance and they have dinner at the dinner table and if they get in trouble they get sent to their room).

When this fantasy world suddenly comes under attack by plus-sign-shaped space ships, many Terrians are so attached to the preachings of “The Elders” that they take it as a Rapture and offer themselves up to the invaders. “Take me!” Our young heroine Mala (Evan Rachel Wood, STRANGE MAGIC) joins the chorus only after her dad gets snatched up. They don’t take her, so she takes one of them – a crashed pilot who turns out to be named Jim (Luke Wilson, BLUE STREAK). These guys are big and they’re human and they come from Earth, which was destroyed long ago in a civil war. Instead of ID4ing him, Mala E.T.s him. She hides him from others, follows the instructions of his robot Giddy (David Cross, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS) to build him a breathing apparatus, and helps him repair his ship so they can try to rescue her dad. This is a story of an Earthling and a Terrian pooling their talents to try to stop the impending war between their people.

Yeah, I don’t blame them for not showing any of the characters on the poster.

Earth has Danny Glover (PREDATOR 2) as president, but Brian Cox (X2) as a Colonel Quaritch type who takes over command and convinces the others that terraforming Terra (thus making it unbreathable for its natives) is the only way the human race can survive. You can see that it’s a legitimate point-of-view for an asshole to hold, so it’s too bad Cox’s voice = Hello There I Am Obviously The Villain Of This Movie I Am Brian Cox After All.

The humans don’t look great, but certainly much, much better than the Terrians. The one that works best on a visual and character level is Giddy, the four-legged droid, whose mind is very literal but he’s still very helpful and mostly friendly due to his programming and Jim’s command to protect Mala.

I’ve seen many computer animated movies that looked much better than this, but lost my interest by the end. This is a story that doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends strong with a nice message very different from most invasion/space war type movies.

The voice cast includes Rosanna Arquette, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Evans, James Garner, Mark Hamill, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Laraine Newman, Amanda Peet, Ron Perlman, Dennis Quaid and Danny Trejo. I didn’t recognize any of them. I see that as a good thing – it is a bunch of celebrity voices, but not in a distracting way.

Director Aristomenis Tsirbas is a Greek-Canadian who worked in the digital effects departments for BRAINSCAN, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS III, TITANIC and others. He first made this as a 7-minute animated short called TERRA in 2003 (so – well before AVATAR, the movie the story most resembles). I guess it’s more of a proof of concept than an actual short, and though the movie basically has the same look, Tsirbas at least vastly improved his pacing.

Tsirbas has a story credit, but the screenplay is by Evan Spiliotopoulos, additional writer of many Disney DTV sequels. According to the production notes on the still-existent official websight, “Tsirbas originally conceived the film as a live action science-fiction epic” until “the opportunity presented itself to make BATTLE FOR TERRA using cutting-edge CG animation.” It explains that they deliberately mimicked live action camerawork (good job) and “wanted the character animation to skew toward the realistic” (you can’t win ’em all I guess).

Because it was in animation they tried to make it kid friendly, but they didn’t try to exploit that with merchandising. As a low budget independent production I guess they didn’t have the corporate connections to make a Happy Meal happen. Or maybe they did? Somebody is selling a set of PVC figurines of Mala, Jim and Giddy on eBay, but I’ve found no other evidence of them anywhere else on the internet, so I’m not sure where they came from.

Note that they are in reverse scale – Jim the smallest, Giddy the biggest.

The movie opened against X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST, and was crushed. Other kids movies out at the time were MONSTERS VS. ALIENS in its sixth week, and HANNA MONTANA THE MOVIE in its fourth week, both of which beat it. Also FIGHTING, which I like, but most people never heard of it – it was in its second week selling more tickets than twelfth place BATTLE FOR TERRA. The next week TERRA dropped to 23rd place beneath THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT in its seventh week and RUDO Y CURSI, which was new but only playing on 70 screens. It ended up making about $6 million in theaters, mostly overseas.

Tsirbas went back to directing animated shorts and has not done another feature. But writer Spiliotopoulos went on to write The Rock’s version of HERCULES, THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR and the movie version of the stage version of Disney’s animated version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. That last one was a gigantic hit, so now he has ten other movies on the docket according to IMDb. One of them is ASTEROIDS, though.

The production company, Snoot Entertainment, has also picked up steam in recent years. This was their only foray into animation until they backed ANOMALISA, and they’ve done many well-received live action indies including YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST, FAULTS, , THUNDER SOUL, THE DEVIL’S CANDY, and they distributed CHEAP THRILLS. (I guess I never reviewed that last one, but I liked it.) Their most recent was BLAIR WITCH.

So this is not a FOODFIGHT! situation where it’s some company steeped in bad faith and cluelessness underestimating how hard it is to get into the computer animated feature biz. It seems to be sincere people with a small budget but large ambitions. I have a hard time recommending a cartoon where the main character looks like a knockoff of those Glo-Worm dolls from the ’80s, but if you do watch it, I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty good.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
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24 Responses to “Battle For Terra”

  1. I saw a screening of this and remember thinking it was impressively sophisticated for a children’s movie plot. Then I remember thinking Avatar was very similar, but great minds think alike and good for getting the message out on a grander scale.

    The jump to 2009 makes me wonder about possible Summer Flings in the mid-00s. I know you can’t do ’em all and this series has to come to an end. Maybe you’re saving some to do another round next summer! Still, perhaps an Unflung Summer Flings discussion would be fun. I found:

    Stepford Wives
    Around the World in 80 Days
    Catwoman
    Bewitched
    Bad News Bears
    Stealth (I think Vern reviewed this)
    Poseidon
    Evan Almighty

    Probably not a lot new to be said about Catwoman really.

    Loved this series, Vern. I find the unfulfilled hope and expectations even more fascinating than the phenomena.

  2. It’s for the best he doesn’t do the Jackie Chan AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS because then I’d subject you all to an easily skippable long rant about how much that movie displeases me and it baffles me how much of my fellow-HK-loving fans like and defend the movie.

    I think CATWOMAN can be ripe for study and maybe even enjoyment due to 10-years or so separation of the marketing trying to make it a new big thing, comic nerds bitching about adaptation issues, due to the time separation it is now a time-capsule when all superhero movies were chasing X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN’s success instead of the Marvel Studios shared-universe juggernaut, etc.

    As for TERRA, I always thought the story sounded interesting and kinda wanted to give it a go but the negative reactions to it has kept me at bay. After this review I may give into curiosity.

  3. I watched the final fight gimmick near the end of Around the World in 80 Days and it was alright. Nothing that I can see defending or giving long winded rants to. Surprised there are ardent supporters but, then again, every movie has to have one fan right?

  4. I’ve had guys tell me it’s the ONLY good English-language Jackie film…

  5. What is Jackie Chan’s best English Language film? My first instincts is to say Shanghai Knights.

  6. Vern, do you get mad that you put in all this time and effort in a review for a movie only for the discussion to veer off coarse right away into something completely unrelated? Cause if you do, sorry.

  7. Wow, of all my suggestions Around the World got the most bites. I remember liking it but haven’t seen it since then. Seemed to signal that without a name costar like Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson, Chan still couldn’t open a movie in the states. Coogan was still a niche British comic.

    I hope the overall discussion of Summer Flings still counts as on topic, but sorry for jumping the gun on a Summer Fling shared universe.

    I have seen Terra and it’s similarities to Avatar are significant. Maybe it shows that delivery matters. Put it in 3D pandora vision and it becomes a phenomenon, and a whipping boy of folks who think the “noble savage” narrative negates the environments anti-military theme. Do it as a middling cartoon and neither side cares.

  8. Nah, I wasn’t expecting much TERRA conversation. I’m not offended.

  9. And yes, I’ve been speeding through to wrap up before the summer ends, but I still have a couple more to go.

  10. Stern: My vote for best English-language Jackie film would be KUNG FU PANDA 2 followed by the first one after that maybe the mediocre third one. For a more serious reply (though I do like the PANDAs) it is a hands-down WHO AM I? If you’re asking for an American-produced English-language one that’s a tough one, I actually prefer SHANGHAI NOON to SHANGHAI KNIGHTS. THE KARATE KID is probably his best American-produced English-language film but if you’re asking for a more traditional Jackie film, for me, it would be between SHANGHAI NOON and BATTLE CREEK BRAWL*, I might have to consider MR. NICE GUY (which was HK-produced) as well (preferably the uncut version). Unfortunately all three of those I think are just okay.

    Vern: Sorry for aiding in derailing yet another topic. I’d like to take this time and say I really love this series as I have all of your’s (my favorite is still Lucas Minus Star Wars).

    *Yeah I know Jackie has nothing but hate for BRAWL but I’ve always enjoyed it. I also get a hoot out of the OG version of THE PROTECTOR, the HK version is probably better but it lacks Jackie dropping ‘F’ bombs and such.

  11. Classifying ANOMALISA as a “live-action indie” might be misleading. But I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of either BATTLE FOR TERRA or DELGO before this review, and am now curious about them. I’m way behind on off-brand animated films, which is an overlooked subgenre in my opinion.

  12. Thanks Curt. That was a weird error that I have now fixed.

  13. This reminds me of ARK, an ultra obscure Korean CGI animated film that inexplicably featured the voice of James Woods, which I saw on one of the movie channels circa 2005 or 2006.

    That one was a ripoff of FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN though and not really a children’s movie, it did have a surprisingly decent song playing over the end credits though.

    Forever Still (live)

    Provided to YouTube by CDBaby Forever Still (live) · OTIS Abundavida ℗ 2004 Village Idiot Publishing Released on: 2004-01-01 Auto-generated by YouTube.

  14. In the UK, this didn’t come out until the following February. Seems like it barely played in the UK, or at least I can’t find any Box Office stats which is unusual for a current decade release, but I guess they at least toyed with the idea of this getting a major release because I saw the trailer in front of AVATAR!

    I was impressed enough by the trailer to get the UK DVD the week it came out. My memories are vague, but not non-existent, and I remember being aware that I had to make exceptions for the quality of the animation and very much enjoying the actual story. Never saw DELGO, but I preferred this to 9, the other “mature” animated film of the era* with superior animation. And yes, at the time I was guilty of “actually the flop cartoon does a better job with AVATAR’s story”. Haven’t seen either since then, so I can’t tell you to what extent that was sincere vs iconoclastic posturing, but I certainly didn’t hate, or claim to hate, AVATAR so I think it was fairly genuine.

    *Bit tangential but I didn’t much care for PERSEPOLIS. I’m all for films which “break your conception of what animated films should be”, but much less so when that a film would have been just as good or better, shot for shot, if it had been live action.

  15. I meant to say “break your conception of what animated films could be”, rather than “should be”, but I guess the point is much the same.

    Loved ANOMALISA, that was a film which successfully straddled the qualities of live action indies with the unique opportunities of animation

  16. Griff: Funnily… I have seen ARK…

    I also want to second/third the love for ANOMALISA. I knew some animators, rightfully, get bitchy when “live action” guys come in wanting to make a cartoon but we sometimes get some really interesting work from that setup. Sadly it’s usually more interesting and better than when an animator makes a jump to live-action.

  17. Also, don’t believe the bad-movie hype around DELGO. I mean it’s bad, really bad, but it’s bad in that generic ‘desperately wants to be STAR WARS so we’re just gonna rip it off’ kind of way that is a dime-a-dozen. I still felt bad for them, on paper it’s the kind of project that should be supported: a small indie studio creating their own independent movie that is going to try to go up against the big boys! Unfortunately they just went made another ERAGON, generic fantasy version of STAR WARS. In DELGO’s case, it was both STAR WARS and ROMEO & JULIET. On top of that, along with it being an embarrassing flop, it is one ugly, ugly-looking movie, not because of the budget, but because the designs of the characters are atrocious.

    I will also second that 9 wasn’t all that good. Shame because the trailer really sold me on it and it looked like it would be up my ally. I can’t even remember much about it sadly.

  18. I’m fairly certain I did a double feature of Terra and Delgo. There may have been some medicinal drugs involved, which would explain why I can’t recall details from either, but I thought it was just one long movie.

  19. geoffreyjar: Wow, that’s amazing, someone else has even HEARD of that movie, let alone seen it?

  20. Griff: I’m not proud of my dedication to watching so many cartoon movies. It’s both a curse and cross that I must bear… I can’t even remember why I watched the damned thing. Maybe cause James Woods was in the dub?

    What’s next someone is going to randomly name-drop Kaena: The Prophecy? Cause I depressingly seen that one too…

  21. I ALMOST named dropped Kaena: The Prophecy too, but I haven’t actually seen that one, only heard of it.

  22. I feel like FREDDIE AS F.R.0.7. needs to be mentioned here. Don’t really have anything to say about it, and not entirely sure it’s appropriate, just something I feel

  23. Yeah… seen that one too… not in theaters but on ye ‘ol VHS… my God… What have I done with my life!?

  24. Reviewed this one for my college paper as a halfway-joke… ended up giving it a positive note. Sometimes-commenter on this site, Keith Caulder produced the film, if I recall correctly.

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