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.
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.
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.