May 7, 2009

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Battle for Terra (PG)
Peace-loving tadpole aliens have to fight off an invading force of humans in Battle for Terra, a thoughtful but rather dull and occasionally dark cartoon.

Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is a spunky, invention-creating young woman living in a land of vaguely tree-like structures through which her vaguely tadpole-ish race flies with gliders or levitates with hover crafts or sort of swims like seahorses. When a new giant thing appears in the sky, she doesn’t believe — as some of her rather naïve brethren do — that it’s a new god. She invents a telescope and is among the first people (er, tadpoles, whatever) to get a good look at what we learn is an invading force. When these invaders appear to abduct her father, Mala chases down one of the ships in hopes of getting sucked in herself but instead she causes the ship to crash and, at the crash site, finds an oxygen-depleted Jim (Luke Wilson), the ship’s human occupant. Giddy (David Cross), a small robot who was on Jim’s ship, helps Mala to bring Jim to her house and construct a little bubble in which oxygen can be generated for him. It’s a little bit like he’s her new pet living in a giant terrarium — a pet that, when he wakes up, tries to kill her a couple of times. But eventually, they strike a deal wherein Mala will help him fix his ship and Jim will help Mala find her father.

Their personal fox-and-hound friendship is set against a species-versus-species fight that is about to ensue between the tadpoles and the humans. The humans are the last of their (our) kind, having first depleted the resources on Earth and then blown up it and neighboring colonies on Mars and Venus. The humans plan to terraform Terra — the tadpole planet — and take it over in a process which, unfortunately for the tadpoles, will make the planet uninhabitable for Mala and her kind. Is this kind of destruction of a sentient species moral to save the human race? Should the peace-loving tadpoles fight back? What should Mala do? What should Jim do? Discuss in your group and be prepared to share your answers with the class.

The morality of destroying a species and the tsk tsk of having messed up our own planet form the center of this movie, around which the characters must consider their options (after talking about them at length) and then decide to do What’s Right. This isn’t bad, per se — it’s dark but plenty of kids’ entertainment has dark sides and this story does offer several teachable moments about right and wrong. But it’s a bit plodding and a touch scoldy and at times boring. It feels good for you, which is never an appealing quality to entertainment, particularly kids’ entertainment. Though many of the visuals look great — there is an entire part of the tadpole world where it appears to always be snowing, very close to the tadpole world where they’re enjoying lovely spring weather —we don’t get enough explanation to even allow these lovely storybook pictures to hold our interest. And, though I’ve been saying tadpole, I’ve seen the alien creatures described elsewhere as also looking rather sperm-like. Their movements are, at times, reminiscent of “how babies are conceived” health class videos. Combine that with their giant anime eyes and their vaguely Naboo-royalty get-ups a la the recent Star Wars movies and the whole effect is odd and distracting instead of fantastical.

Battle for Terra had its heart in the right (or, perhaps I should say, the left) place but it feels more like an antidote to violent kid entertainment than kid adventure that has something to say. C

Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and thematic elements. Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas and written by Tsirbas and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Battle for Terra is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.