Battle for Terra, the kid's 3-D sci-fi epic opening this week, feels like a demonstration of the double-edged sword in animation: It would be nice if someone other than Pixar and Dreamworks stepped up to make computer-animated films; it would also be nice if those films were, you know, actually good. It's not that I didn't like Battle for Terra — it's got heart, and great 3-D, and it's trying to be about something, even if the entire movie boils down to pretty much the same message as the song "One Tin Soldier" that my hippie grade 6 teacher made us learn. But watching Battle for Terra felt like one of those experiences where you go to a small, locally made restaurant for breakfast and there's egg yolk on the tines of your fork and nobody can get you a refill when you want one and they're out of the special and you kinda wish you were at IHOP instead. No, it doesn't have the marketing-machine clank and corporate-gloss shallowness that the movies from the big boys do. But it doesn't have the core competencies they have, either.
Battle for Terra begins on a far-flung planet where floating flatworm-people with big eyes live in mushroom cities while sky-whales soar through the clouds; basically, if you fed someone a pot brownie and showed them old episodes of The Smurfs and a collection of Roger Dean Yes album covers, this is what they'd dream of later. Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is a plucky maverick who chafes at the slightly controlling nature of Terran society, but when a huge machine blocks the sun, the springs into action, learning that the machine's a ship full of an invading race called … humans. Mala learns all of this when she crashes, and capture the pilot of, one of the sleek, swift ships that have taken so many of her people; its pilot, Jim (Luke Wilson) comes to know and respect Mala, even as Jim's commander General Hemmer (Brian Cox) insists that the humans get off their slowly-dying ship and seize Terra as humanity's new home to replace the shattered Earth, including changing its atmosphere to oxygen that will sustain human beings — but kill the Terrans. …
And when that happens — and the big-eyed, gentle Terrans sink to the ground coughing and wheezing like the victims of a World War I mustard gas attack — you wonder: Uh, wasn't this supposed to be a kid's movie? A lot of people — and space aliens — wind up dead in the Battle for Terra, and while I'm not saying that a kid's film can't deal with the realities of war (see the extraordinary Grave of the Fireflies for proof), I am saying that it has to be a little better written to justify that kind of gravitas. (Especially in the finale, with an action sequence culminating in a series of events that seemed altogether too dark and grim for a PG-rated film. I could not imagine a parent trying to explain the finale of Battle for Terra to their child, but knew a parent should, and would have to.)
Directed by Canada's Aristomenis Tsirbias, Battle for Terra looks great — fine animation, compelling backgrounds, only slightly Shrek-esque humans. So while the 3D animation is impressive in Battle for Terra, the 3-D storyline — dark, disturbing and depressing — is less so. No, you wouldn't get a movie like this from a major studio — because a major studio would knock some of the rougher edges off it, and maybe find a way to reconcile the playful innocence and gentle optimism of the opening with the laser-blasting, gas-attack carnage of the finale. Battle for Terra feels like it either needs to grow up or calm down; the struggle between its split halves comes down to a stalemate audiences can't win.