If movies were a Little League baseball team, Aristomenis Tsirbas’ Battle for Terra would get a trophy just for trying hard. But no matter how striking the visuals occasionally are, no matter how much the film attempts to transcend its own kiddie-flick origins with its somewhat downbeat ending and pertinent political message, and no matter how much the movie’s heart is in the right place, Terra is just too generic to warrant any kind of fuss.
A lot of this stems from the movie’s Sci-Fi for Dummies feel. Science fiction is a genre that’s always prided itself on its own subversion—at least when bothering to transcend George Lucas-styled space-opera histrionics—and Terra is no different. The film’s crux—which revolves around the remainder of humanity invading a peaceful alien world in a last-gasp attempt at survival—is not only relevant, but is a nice change of pace for a kids movie, seeing as how it goes beyond that age-old kiddie combination of bathroom jokes and cutesiness. But while the film’s points are welcome, director and story writer Tsirbas and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos (Pooh’s Heffalump Movie) never bring forth any ideas that feel fresh or original—and to top everything off, they add a dollop of Star Wars to the proceedings. The lack of original ideas becomes especially obvious when sci-fi’s long-standing history of political and environmental advocating is accounted for.
The story itself is simple. A peaceful race of doe-eyed, floating, spermatozoa-shaped aliens called Terrians are invaded by a hostile group of Earthlings. It seems that the last survivors of Earth, after colonizing Venus and Mars and promptly destroying all three planets in a fit of war, have traveled to the planet of Terra in an attempt at resettling. When one especially crafty Terrian named Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) sees her father kidnapped in battle, she enlists the help of an Earthman (Luke Wilson) and his comic-relief robot (David Cross) who have crash-landed on her planet.
From there, it’s basic sci-fi action, with the requisite edge-of-your-seat spaceship dogfights and high-flying adventure, all of which is too run-of-the-mill to be memorable. Because of this, the film’s political proselytizing and 3-D animation become the film’s points of interest, but each is too muddled and shoddy to be as individually effective as they should be.
The movie’s message of the dangers of environmental negligence and military aggression are fine and dandy, except the movie cheats a bit to meet its aim. Sure, pointing out Earth’s xenophobic and jingoistic tendencies has the potential to be heady stuff as far as PG-rated animated films go, but glossing over the Terrians utilization of a sort of neutered fascism as a means of maintaining their peaceful society is unfortunate and off-putting.
The animation is just as mixed. The space battles, scenery and machinery are all top-notch and Tsirbas’ use of depth of field is especially impressive considering this is an animated film. But no matter how impressive the visuals are, it’s all undermined by some truly boring character models, all animated in a fashion that’ll make you pine for the glory days of Gumby. Add to this the film’s after-the-fact 3-D and the visuals become downright boring (the movie was never intended to be in 3-D—that is, until after production finished—which became obvious about halfway through the movie when I forgot I was even watching a 3-D movie). Put it all together and you have a pretty underwhelming cartoon that’s as harmless as it is superfluous. Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and some thematic violence.