"Battle for Terra" is essentially the same familiar story of alien invaders we've seen a hundred times before, with a single twist. But, oh, what a doozy it is.
In this animated tale, the weird bug-eyed aliens are the peaceful earthbound denizens, and the killer conquerors from outer space are humans. Low on budget but long on ambition, "Terra" has plenty of whiz-bang action scenes, and a gentle message that's not exactly subtle, but at least isn't shoved down your throat.
A little history: This movie was made by tiny independent company for a fraction of the price of a Pixar or DreamWorks animated flick. It's been floating around awhile -- I saw it a Midwest film festival last fall, when it was called just "Terra" -- until it was picked up by a major distributor and tweaked for 3-D.
If you judge it by the animation standards of a "Kung Fu Panda," "Terra" looks a little dated, but not by much. Director Aristomenis Tsirbas and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos have created a densely-imagined world with layers of detail, even in the corners and background. The aliens are arresting, resembling flying tadpoles with arms and huge, expressive eyes.
Interestingly, since this film was not originally produced for 3-D, there are none of the usual self-conscious gestures to show off the medium -- things flinging themselves at us, etc. The effect simply adds more depth to the 2-D images, making them pop off the screen without any distracting tricks.
An all-star voice cast is led by Evan Rachel Wood as Mala, a Terran science whiz who likes to test her peaceful society's many rules, which ban things like creating new technology or poking her nose (if she had one) into off-limits areas.
Luke Wilson plays James Stanton, part of an invading force of warlike humans, the last remnants of an Earth destroyed by conflicts. They've been traveling through space for generations, and their aging craft is barely holding together. They need a place to settle, and Terra is the target -- even though it's already inhabited by Mala's people.
The humans' Machiavellian general (Brian Cox) orders a full-scale assault on the planet, but Stanton crashes and is saved by Mala. Together with his four-legged pet robot Giddy (David Cross), Stanton soon allies with Mala to resolve the conflict before it destroys both their peoples.
The rest of the voice cast includes Justin Long, Dennis Quaid, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Chris Evans and many others.
The filmmakers paint an interesting contrast between the humans and Terrans. The technology of Mala's people is organic and free-flowing, spare yet elegant (we never hear what Terrans call themselves; maybe they're IKEAns). The humans' gear and ships are all aging metal, bulky and brutally efficient. The fact that the humans have highly exaggerated facial features and torsos -- Stanton looks like he could bench press a Buick -- makes them seem more cartoony than the "aliens."
"Battle for Terra" isn't a huge leap forward, merely taking a familiar story and refreshing it. But in light of disastrous other recent indie animation efforts ("Delgo"), it's nice to see somebody giving the big boys a reason to look over their shoulder.
3 stars out of four