I really hate to pick on the rare breed of independently made 3D CGI flick with clearly smart aims and maybe, just a bit, attempting to stretch the imagination of children. But. This elaborate CGI feature is simply just a mix of squandered potential even moreso than the less ambitious comic riffing of Monsters vs. Aliens. The Battle for Terra could have been at the level of any of Brad Bird‘s films. Alas, this is not the case. It has a beautiful concept and impressive visuals (especially considering that it was probably made with less money than the Red Bull budget of Shrek 3). A feature length extension of the fabulous 2003 short Terra the basic concept spins the alien invasion movie by swapping perspectives. The peaceful alien world is about to be destroyed by a spaceship full of hostile humans. Unfortunately the result is a textbook example of a wealth of ideas and creativity neutered by a lazy screenplay.
On a distant helium world the sentient race consists of floating tad-pole like creatures. Cross ET with Jabba the Hut, swell the eyes out to anime proportions and you get the general idea. They live in harmony with the local fauna, birdlike animals and gargantuan floating whales and paint, sing and dance without too many cares. Theodore Geisel called this place Who-Ville, but here it is called simply Terra.
Mala (voiced by The Wrestler‘s Evan Rachel Wood) is the type of precocious youngster that infuriates her dad (Dennis Quaid) as much as he is proud of her fierce intelligence. The local elders are unhappy with her sharp knack with technology and invention as it upsets the gods, or threatens to expose a dark secret or two. They want her to stop. This drama is quickly interrupted when flying ships drop from the sky and start shooting up the village. The advanced alien invaders are as intent on destroying the place as they are abducting much of the citizenry (all fire-in-the-sky with green tractor beams), including Mala’s father. Trying to figure out just what is going on, Mala manages to bring home an injured alien from a crashed ship. Cue audience gasp – It is a “Human Being” (Luke Wilson for the second to become the everyman voice of reason in a sea of stupidity a la Idiocracy) Over a quick getting-to-know-you pow-wow at Mala’s house, it is quickly learned that Humans wiped out their own solar system in a massive civil war. The few remaining humans that were not wiped out (they being the most vicious of the bunch) have selected Terra for their new home. One problem – humans breathe oxygen and terrans breathe helium. And the humans have brought a terraforming device which spells doomsday – Project Genesis style.
Here lies the main the problem with The Battle for Terra. Despite all of the wondrous visuals, which include the Terra ecosystem and the expressive faces of the inhabitants, there is no connective tissue to the story. It is constructed with entirely out of George Lucas-isms and twice warmed over Battlestar Galactica modern-America allegory. [ed note: I caught this movie and wrote the guts of this review before Pixar’s WallE came out with its Axiom full of Disneyland blob-consumers. A film with similar images and messages that was 10 times more graceful with its plot development or metaphor (even if some rightfully claim WallE was heavyhanded itself)] After the strong first 20 minutes, it is as if everyone got really lazy and just painted grabbed parts of the Ewok section of Return of Jedi, the X-wing battle from Star Wars and George C. Scott‘s wacky general from Dr. Strangelove (flatly vocalized by Brian Cox who should avoid voice-acting from here on out). This may not even be that bad of a thing (heck, I would pay to see a mash-up of space opera an military satire any day of the week) except screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos forgot to add elements that bridge one set-piece to the next and characters with even the thinnest of shading. Everyone is a slave to plot machinations. The movie skips along far too quickly, expecting you to fill in the gaps because you’ve seen everything on display here, plotwise, time and time again. Eight to ten year old kids that have not seen many films will likely be confused by how things get from point A to B to C as their parents begin to yawn with familiarity. Is it fair to expect more from the writer of Pooh’s Heffalump Movie and Nutty Professor 2? Both of those were nearly (and appropriately) direct to video, and the fact that The Battle For Terra was rescued from the DTV ghetto and given the 3D spit-polish before dying in a single weekend on 1000 screens is very sad for the state of indie CGI productions (although this somewhat offset by the relative success of Coraline, yet driven very much home with Delgo). Perhaps director Aristomenis Tsirbas should have considered his screenplay before embarking on what is probably an Everest-like effort to get an independent CGI feature off the ground. Perhaps he should have written the screenplay himself, as his original 2003 short has better narrative and dialogue than this 85 minute feature. When attempting something on this epic of a level, including (potentially sophisticated) environmental and political subtext, perhaps a more Ghibli-sized runtime of 120 minutes would have been in order to allow scenes to breathe, develop and hum with the creativity on display everywhere else. This could have been the modern Canadian animated feature debut (Tsirbas is from Montreal) along the lines of Nausicaa: Valley of the Winds, but it ends up more like Veggie Tales. This is a real pity because it is nice to see a film that does not feature talking animals for a change.