There are major topics and discussions in the news world over right now (other than Swine Flu and the economy). Hot on the heels of Earth Day, citizens and activists are still abuzz over the environment and global warming while for the rest of us, the impending release of “Star Trek” seems to be the number topic of conversation. So, for those of you that are looking for your own little galactic adventure with some potent underlying social and environmental messages, you can do no better than with Aristomenis Tsirbas’ BATTLE FOR TERRA – a little gem of a film that wends its way through the universe of animated 3D onto the big screen with intelligence, charm and appeal for the entire family.
Terra is a beauteous and peaceful planet; an intergalactic Eden or Shangri-La. There is no war. Many of the inhabitants are even unaware of the word let alone its meaning. Life is lazy and languid, much like that in a Mark Twain novel set along the Swanee River in the Deep South; quiet, undulating like a reed in swamp with a warm summer breeze wafting through the willow trees. And ironically, the Terrians are slender, almost tadpole-like in their appearance and move by undulating through the air in their gravity defying cities going hither and yon without a care – and but for a few – not a brain in the world. Ruled by a group of Elders, the laws are few, but simple. Avoid certain areas of the planet and all will be well. (Can’t you hear Will Robinson’s trusty robot now? “Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!”) But, as with any civilization or culture, there are always those who go their own way, or have the audacity to think for themselves. And on Terra, that someone is Mala. A precocious feisty young girl who says what she thinks and thinks what she says, Mala has no qualms about questioning the Elders or her own father. She is everything that most young Terrians, and most young girls and boys, are not. She loves science and the science of invention and is so bold as to build her inventions and put them to use – a skill and knowledge that will prove useful to her in the days to come.
But what happens when this idyllic life is interrupted with the appearance of strange objects in the sky? To most of the populous, the shiny objects are gods to be fear and revered. To Mala, they are a point of interest, curiosity and fascination. It doesn’t take long, however, before the true identity of these objects is known – spaceships carrying the last surviving inhabitants (military, of course) of the now defunct planet Earth who are now searching for a new planet to call home, having exhausted all resources and ability to sustain life on Earth. Invading rather than investigating the feasibility of life on Terra and without concern for the Terrians, Earthforce begins a reign of aerial destruction, abducting Terrians at every turn with, as we quickly learn, the only goal being to annihilate the Terrians and oxygenate and gravitate the planet for humans to colonize.
But for Mala, fear and acquiescence is not an option when her father is taken hostage and when she rescues a downed Earthforce pilot named Major Jim Stanton who agrees to help Mala rescue her father in exchange for her saving his life. And as the two work together, it doesn’t take long for Jim and Mala to discover the two civilizations – and each of them – have more in common than anyone has dared realize, turning their one rescue mission into a mission to save two species and one world.
From a character development standpoint, key are the voices behind the animation and TERRA boasts possibly the finest A-list cast of actors of any animated film, starting with Even Rachel Wood as Mala, who is clearly the standout (and one who has her own action figure) all due to Wood’s performance. She provides a full range of motion with her voice and it carries not only the character, but the film, setting the tone with strong traits and a caring heart. Mala is truly a heroine that girls round the world will identify with. Luke Wilson surprised the heck out of me as Major Jim Stanton. Well inflected, emotional. The tenor and timbre of his voice, like Rachel Evan Wood’s, said more than even the words themselves did. And the meld of Wood and Wilson is also very appealing. Leading the Terrian Elders is none other than James Garner as the wise old Doron. Comforting and calm…..and in my favorite moment, adding a little bit of fun Bret Maverick inflection with his “There’s always an alternative” hypothesis when Mala was so worried that the humans would die. Brian Cox is exemplary as General Hemmer, “evil” leader of the Earthforce, and while Danny Glover gives an adequate performance as President Chen, I believe Ron Perlman, who voices Terrian Elder Vorin, would have been even better. Dennis Quaid jumps in Mala’s father Roven while David Cross is an exuberant bucket of bolts delight as Jim Stanton’s trusty sidekick robot, Giddy – a cross between C3P0 and R2-D2. Thanks to Cross, Giddy is more animated and alive, than his human or Terrian counterparts! Also on board are the likes of Chad Allen, Rosanna Arquette, Beverly D’Angelo , Chris Evans, Mark Hamill, David Krumholz, Justin Long, Laraine Newman and Danny Trejo who not only provide excellent voicings and characterizations, but will have your mind jumping trying to identify the voice behind the face.
Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas and written by Evan Spiliotopoulos based on a story by Tsirbas, TERRA is not subtle in its messages. Starting with a very clear definition of good versus evil, we quickly see the affection Tsirbas and Spiliotopoulos have for sci-fi and adventure, quite notably “Star Wars”, even designing Earthforce uniforms that look like that of the Imperial soldiers or even better, those of the Nazis in “Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade.” Paying homage to the “classics”, the bulk of the creative forces in this movie looked as if lifted right out of “Star Wars” and “Independence Day”, right down to the manner of the aerial fights and design of the Earthforce and Terrian aircraft while the Terrian residential section looked like Jar Jar Binks’ home under the sea in “The Phantom Menace”.
Technically the film is superb and designed to support not only the story, but the animation. However, while the 3D is wonderfully effective, I don’t think it was used to its fullest and best possible extent with this film, although the majority of the film is very soothing to look at. Given the very nature of the Terra world and the free flowing undulating movements of the inhabitants, their homes, etc., I expected more 3D coming at me from the screen. The undulating movement was very ethereal and beautiful to watch and I can only imagine how much moreso it could have been. The overall design and color palettes are pleasing to the eye and keep in theme with the environmentally and socially correct Terra. Interestingly, as a whole, the human animation was blocky and “dim-witted” (although the one female Earth Force leader looked very much like “Dancing With The Stars” Cheryl Burke) and very reminiscent of Japanese Anime with pointy noses on the females and the shape of female heads and bodies. I thought was I watching “Astro Boy” or “Speed Racer” from the 60’s.
But I have to ask – – what the heck were they thinking making oxygen look green when it was being pumped into Terra. Looked more like LA smog than fresh O2.
The film flows both visually and through the story itself, providing enough action to satisfy the most action hungry kid around while telling a story with a heroine that every little girl will connect with and a hero that will have that GI Joe appeal to boys. There is no question that Tsirbas is sending messages with this film – the environment, war, peace, tolerance and acceptance and the Rodney King mantra “why can’t we all just get along”, the latter of which is beautifully and sweetly told through Mala, Jim and Giddy. There is fault and blame for the problems of Earth and Terra which is equally distributed to all with sufficient backstory and foundation laid to satisfy the most intricate scrutiny of the story. No one gets away from taking responsibility for what could be truly universal problems.
Based on a short film by Aristomenis Tsirbas, feature-length TERRA is a welcome addition to the big screen landscape. Showcasing the best and worst of human nature, problems common to us all and a peek into what the future may hold, not to mention the fact that “there is always an alternative”, besides being a beautiful work of art that happens to be fun to watch, TERRA gives hope for our terra firma – and gives us one new kick-ass heroine and some cool action figures to boot!
Mala – Evan Rachel Wood
Jim Stanton – Luke Wilson
Giddy – David Cross
Doron – James Garner
Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas and written by Evan Spiliotopoulos based on a story by Tsirbas.