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.

Read more after the jump:

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.

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September 14, 2007
Country: Canada
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Running Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, David Cross, Amanda Peet, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, and James Garner

Today I saw Terra at the Toronto International Film Festival. My screening was packed, and I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with the director. Tsirbas is a Montreal native, and remarked that premiering his first feature film at TIFF was a "moving and rewarding experience." There has been serious buzz about Terra, and after attending the film I learnt why.

Terra is the story of Mala, a young Terrian (a peaceful, art-loving, techno-wary race who resemble cute tadpoles) whose passion for designing and constructing gadgets makes her something of a misfit at school and home. One day, Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Sen notice a mysterious alien ship. When it deploys several smaller ships, one of them crashes and Mala finds Lieutenant Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) of the Earth Forces after he emerges from the wreckage. With the help of his robot Giddy (David Cross), she builds him an oxygen-friendly environment and learns his language. After the Earth Forces take Terra's father as a "test subject," Mala agrees to help Jim repair his ship if he takes her to the human mothership, known as the Ark, so that she can rescue him. Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong, and soon Mala and Jim are embroiled in a struggle for the planet Terra: Earth Forces military want to terraform Terra and render it uninhabitable for the native Terrians, and the Terrians must confront their warlike past in order to defend themselves.

Terra is not for everyone. It is not for neo-conservatives, although they would probably benefit most from seeing it. It is not for viewers who cannot stand violence in their animation. (Terra is very violent, but not graphic -- you'll see very little blood, but experience quite a lot of tension.) It is not for viewers who do not enjoy CGI, although the animation here is anything but the cheery plasticity of Cars. However, it is meant for people who enjoy great music, fast-paced action (including some fantastic aerial dogfights), and the sort of plot that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks will never, ever create on their own. Although Tsirbas shied away from applying any sort of definitive moral to his story, Terra is already being discussed as an allegory for the Iraq War. Terra presents the sort of difficult moral world that Miyazaki fans will remember from Princess Mononoke. (But Mononoke does it better, thanks in part to a more eloquent script.)

Terra has a few other flaws. The character designs are somewhat at odds with the environmental and mechanical ones. The humans in particular look as though they have all been stamped from the same mould, which is partially a product of military costume: flight suits and shaved heads. One notable exception is the villainous General Hemmer, whose face one audience member called "copied from George W. Bush." In addition, there are the usual scientific errors that populate most film-based science-fiction: Terra is supposed to be a helium atmosphere, and at certain moments Jim's respirator helps him metabolize it into oxygen. And the script is not particularly witty -- instead it evokes feeling mostly through high-pressure situations and the grace of good actors.

That said, Terra is probably leaps and bounds more unique than most animated feature films due out this year, and it has a good shot at distribution. The kids at my screening had a great time, and the popcorn-munching died down quickly. During the final sequences, I could hear every tiny rustle in the seats -- the film held everyone's attention in a tight grip. I hope you all get a chance to see it, and decide for yourselves what the story's message is.

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