We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Bottom Line: A beautifully animated movie that rises above its kid-friendly trappings and delivers a decent sci fi tale, much more satisfying than the similar-themed (and mega-budgeted) Avatar.
As blockbusters like Star Trek, Transformers, and Harry Potter were preparing to assault the theaters at the beginning of the 2009 Summer season, a rather unassuming little animated movie appeared and disappeared within about two weeks time. This movie, Battle for Terra, had been made back in 2007 at a very economical price for a CGI film (around $4 million originally though increased to $8 million with 3-D effects added), and had received some acclaim as it toured the film festival circuit and won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
The movie opens on a distant planet where a race of peaceful beings, who have the ability to fly, live an idyllic existence mostly at harmony with their world. However, an enormous space ship arrives carrying the last inhabitants of a destroyed Earth who plan to settle on this planet. The humans must terraform the planet to make the atmosphere breathable which in turn will make it poisonous to the natives. An initial confrontation with the humans and natives leads to one of the humans crashing on the planet and coming face to face with the people he would help destroy. This is the beginning of what eventually lead to the beginning of a mutual understanding between the two races.
Battle for Terra is a beautifully illustrated CGI-animated movie that mixes science fiction with fantasy (though still sufficiently rooted in science) and even throws in a bit of steam-punk tech. And while the substance does not always match up to the style, Battle for Terra still delivers a more satisfying tale than the similarly themed Avatar from James Cameron which would follow this one at the Box Office with much more fanfare (and BoT had a much lower price tag than Avatar’s $240 million budget) . But while Terra’s story verges into the derivative at times with a hodgepodge of genre elements and some copy-and-paste dialogue, it presents a more genuine take on its subject matter than the much more calculated Avatar. And while it may not fully develop its characters and ideas, in part because of its rather brief 85 minute run-time, in the end the movie manages to overcome most of its deficiencies and stand out as a notable genre entry.
And sparse though the plot may be, the writers resist the temptation to give us a simple tale of idealistic pacifist aliens vs. imperialist, invading humans. Sure, it ventures in that direction with the central villain General Hemmer, but we see that the humans are primarily driven more by their desperation than anything else and we also see that the natives of Terra have the ability to defend themselves if necessary. This is where the movie diverges from the Disney-style kids-fare as it chooses not to present a conflict followed by a tidy wrap-up and happy ending. And this is probably what doomed the movie in the theaters.
Battle for Terra has the look of a fantasy movie aimed at the younger crowd, much like the Star Wars: The Clone Wars film and subsequent TV series. In fact, it seems quite merchandise friendly, with its cute aliens, adorable robots, sleek space ships and steam-punk alien airships. But the movie does not give us the simple tale of good vs. evil that you would expect from a film of this type. In fact, the apparent youthful target audience may have difficulty figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The movie delivers more mature themes wrapped up in moral dilemmas, and in the final battle children may struggle with who exactly to route for and the film ends with the heart-rending sacrifice of one of the lead characters. For me, that makes for great story-telling. But since they decided to market the movie mostly toward children (surely as an afterthought, though), that may have severely hampered its Box Office viability. Ultimately, it’s hard to really pin down this movie as it presents an exercise in contrast with its cute aliens and invading humans facing some very difficult moral decisions. But science fiction and fantasy fans should appreciate it as a well done movie that rises above the expected family-friendly animated flick and delivers a superior genre tale. If you missed this one in the theaters, do yourself a favor and seek it out on DVD or VOD. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.