September 24, 2008
Frequent fps contributor, René Walling and I rolled into Ottawa from Montreal fairly late on Friday night, both disappointed to have missed out on The New Wave Of Japanese Animation that had screened at 7pm that evening. Our options limited, we set ourselves toward the Empire Cinema across the street from our shared Novotel room, where we had quickly shed our luggage. We were just in time to catch a screening of one of the films in the running for best feature of the fest: a little independent CG number called, Terra.
Terra sets itself up as an alien invasion tale turned on its head. Happy little, sentient tadpole people float blissfully through their naive lives in a Miyazaki film/Flight GN inspired world of flying whale-things, gliders and airships until the fateful day when a "god" appears in the sky. The god turns out to be a giant, spinning spaceship carrying an invasion force of humans, desperate to take the planet as their new home. Amidst an explosive torrent of sci-fi action and Planet of the Apes riffing revelation, we follow fishy, doe-eyed Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) through a step-by-step Campbell-style "Hero Journey" to fulfill her destiny and save her people from extinction. To its credit, the film manages to throw enough plot and character curve balls to keep the structure from being too cookie-cutter familiar but rarely ascends beyond anything more than a simple story twist, illustrated with a collection of elements cobbled together from an animation fan's nerd-moist-dreams.
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Which leads me to question who the audience is for this film? It lacks the depth that adults require of character pieces like Ghibli's Only Yesterday or the internal consistency of the better sci-fi/fantasies like Ghost in the Shell or Macross (the filmmakers never manage to bridge the gap between the fantasy-science of the tadpole Terrans and the real-worldish science of the humans). We're constantly asked to suspend belief beyond reasonable realms (Mala is able to, within minutes, build an atmospheric containment chamber large enough to house a grown adult spaceman) while being led by the nose from plot point to plot point, all the while suffering a perpetual head-clubbing by the hammer of the films "message". There isn't much subtlety in Terra. Is that because it's made to appeal to children? I can't say for certain that my eight-year-old nephew would care for it either (This review would have been so much easier to write if he'd been with me!) The pseudo-science concepts that much of the plot hinges upon may be too technical for youngsters to grasp, keeping them at arms length from the main thrust of the narrative. Add to that a potentially inappropriate level of violence and death and Terra becomes a film that my sister might not appreciate having screened for her little boy.
For what it's worth, the full-length movie from artist/director Aristomenis Tsirbas is a minor triumph in that the quality of the Maya (character animation), LightWave 3D (modeling, texturing, lighting, rendering) and Modo (additional modeling, bridging) animation is such that it can compete at the box-office with larger studio films. Both design work and animation quality are uneven (humans have a distinct and well designed Pixar style to their faces and a completely flat and formless shape to their body and dress) but not so offensive that children or less discriminating adults will take notice. The combination of the inconsistent writing and animation was certainly distracting enough to pull me out of the feature at times but I felt that I might have been in the minority in the theatre. After all, it won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the fest.