Battle for Terra is a movie that shifts from moment to moment. There are bits of it that show off a subtle genius, subverting clichés and telling a story with real resonance. In other parts, it can be pretty grating, putting visual ahead of story and needlessly stretching out its scenes. On a scale, it still tips a little bit to the positive side, with its colorful visuals and strong message. It’s difficult to hold it up to the rest of this year’s animated features, but it’s fine for what it is.
Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is a teenager from an alien race that has evolved to live peacefully with nature, but in doing so, has mostly shunned the very idea of technology. Mala, who has a gift for inventing, has trouble with this concept, and constantly finds herself in trouble for her hardheadedness. But all that is put aside when an invading force of Earthlings arrives at their planet, seeking to find a new world to replace the ones that have been destroyed by war and consumption. A gung-ho general only seeks to destroy the population so that the planet can be terraformed, and it’s up to Mala and a plucky young soldier to try and change the course.
Battle for Terra is a case of extremes, occasional doses glorifying ups mixed in with a cold lump of disheartening lows. It’s deserve praise for turning a sci-fi convention on its head, making the humans the invading alien force, in doing so putting a face to an often purely malevolent entities in cinema. It’s also notable how the film portrays fanaticism on both sides, never quite letting even the peace-loving Terrans off the hook. It’s a surprisingly mature way to tell the story. But these great heights are balanced out by an overall story that refuses common sense as a prime motivator. As the movie moves into its second act, it feels like the characters (particularly the Council of Humans) were made intentionally dumb to stretch out the runtime, all of them ignoring obvious solutions to their problems. This all leads to a largely unnecessary third act, seemingly written only to provide a vehicle for the film’s visuals. The entire third doesn’t really mesh well with what the movie preaches, and it’s this confused tone that comes to define the film.
To be fair, it does look pretty good. It doesn’t compare well to the bigger productions out there, but it works well enough. The production design is marvelous, the planet really coming alive on screen. The bright color palette, combined with the fantastic designs makes the film a pretty enjoyable watch. The use of the camera is limited, but what’s there is really well executed. The edit could have used a little more work, some of the scenes feeling a little stretched out. The film is being present in 3-D here, and while I’m a big fan of the technology, I have to say that it doesn’t add much to this experience. In fact, it kind of muddies up the colors, which a big part of the film’s visual appeal. Only one cinema in the Metro is showing it in 2-D, and I would actually recommend that experience. The vocal performances are pretty functional, though a bit unremarkable. The celebrity voices are recognizable, which is both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on how keen your ear is towards these things. Out of the voices, Brian Cox stands out as the fanatical warmonger General Hemmer. David Cross’ robotic sarcasm works pretty well, too.
Battle for Terra has many flaws, but I’m still pretty glad for its existence. While Pixar and Dreamworks and Fox Animation are all more or less pretty great at their, they aren’t creating movies like Battle for Terra. I feel there is room in this day and age for clever reworkings for sci-fi tropes, and if this movie were just a little bit better, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. As it stands, it’s clunky enough that the choice is a little more difficult.