We were dazzled by the look of the two Toy Story films; just as important, we were utterly charmed by their effusive personality. That's the tricky balance that eludes so many animated films, including the breathtaking but benignly shallow new sci-fi cartoon Titan A.E.
Titan, the latest from veteran animators Gary Goldman and Don Bluth, certainly has ambitions beyond looking pretty. The A.E. stands for "`after Earth." Earth has its fiery swan song before the credits roll, blown to smithereens by the evil Drej species. But it's 3028 (A.D., not A.E.), and we had the know-how to hide a rather important ship, the Titan, in deep space. Never underestimate the importance of foresight, or of a young hero (Cale, voiced by Matt Damon) given the task of saving what's left of mankind.
No one should worry about plot, much of which seems to be cribbed from the Star Wars series and various other "save mankind" space sagas, or tone, which is playfully jocular even in the face of human annihilation. Instead, feast your eyes on the most sophisticated layering of two- and three-dimensional animation ever seen in an American film.
Sparing no detail in creating a vast array of intergalactic races and habitats, Mr. Bluth and his team make it very difficult to look away from the banal activities of the human creatures (voiced by the likes of Drew Barrymore as a purple-tressed heroine and Bill Pullman as a macho space pilot). At times, Titan A.E. boasts the movement and lifelike feel of a superb virtual reality game.
Mr. Bluth and his writers, who include Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator/Toy Story writer Joss Whedon, have done a fine job conceiving set pieces to match the technical wizardry. Animation fans will be particularly enamored of the jagged ice ring where the film's climax unfolds, a web of stalactite-shaped crystals that look like they might poke through the screen. A frenzied race through a forest of "hydrogen trees" is also magical.
The flesh-and-blood creations don't fare quite as well. Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofalo and John Leguizamo lend their voices to creatures who look like rudimentary animal hybrids; their relative simplicity stands out amid their wondrous surroundings. The only stunning creatures are the computer-generated Drej, composed of angular strands of shape-shifting blue light. Their striking appearance helps compensate for their rather hollow psychological stature as villains; the void of well-defined evil is one more element that keeps the pleasures in the visual realm.
But what a realm that is. Titan boasts a sense of perpetual motion rarely found in even the most advanced animation, creating the illusion of a real camera darting around and through surreal but very concrete worlds. Eye candy has rarely been more tasty - or less filling.