Space - the animated frontier

Titan AE (PG) <i>Don Bluth/Gary Goldman, 94 mins</i> | The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (PG) <i>Brian Levant, 90 mins</i> Butterfly's Tongue (15) <i>Jos&Atilde;&copy; Luis Cuerda, 95 mins</i> | Cabaret Balkan (12) <i>Goran Paskaljevic, 102 mins</i>
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The Independent Culture

It will be a great day for animation when the hero, the juve, the one voiced by the beef-cake (top actors are always surprising us by popping-up as voices in animated films - it's seen as a tick on your CV, like going off to Scarborough to do an Ayckbourn) doesn't have a body like Patrick Swayze.

It will be a great day for animation when the hero, the juve, the one voiced by the beef-cake (top actors are always surprising us by popping-up as voices in animated films - it's seen as a tick on your CV, like going off to Scarborough to do an Ayckbourn) doesn't have a body like Patrick Swayze.

Just as Monroe supposedly inspired Tinkerbell, it seems that Swayze - in every other way obsolete as an actor these days - somehow, somewhere, computed as the male physical ideal. A kind of Nureyev but with smaller balls. As far as I can see, the only thing wrong with the teen-oriented, rock-soundtracked Titan AE is the Swayze factor. The hero, Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) is just such a chunk of hunk, and one of the few human beings left in the cosmos. The year is 3028 and the earth has long been destroyed by an alien race called the Drej (silver-fish coloured, long-limbed.) Without a place to call home, humans are now scattered about the universe, and are seen as freaks, living on cold, industrial planets.

But Cale holds a secret - the whereabouts of the Titan AE, a machine designed to locate fertile, friendly planets like Earth. The Drej want Cale dead, but with the help of a crack pilot (Drew Barrymore) he will fight it out. In visual terms, the film is a kind of mutant. With its combination of 3-D and 2-D, Titan AE has sprung from all sorts of different genres.It is as though co-director Don Bluth (prominent in animation since the 1950s and Sleeping Beauty) has guzzled on Blade Runner (who hasn't?) and The Terminator and early sci-fi films like Voyage Across The Impossible, which was all about climatic extremes and isolation.

In Titan we see planets with bar-codes glowing above the crust; we see wake angels shimmering alongside space-ships, like the small parasitical fish that attach themselves to sharks; we hear the sob of an ice-planet as Cale's ship enters its atmosphere, the plaintive tinkle as stalactites fall.

The story is rather cribbed from The Lord of the Rings (one of the characters even says "Can we eat it? When can we eat it?" just like Gollum) with its Titan AE to rule them all and in the darkness find them.

But I didn't mind this. There's too much here to like. The film has a real, desolate sense of humans as intergalactic refugees. Their loneliness is irreducible and life-long; they recall human civilisation in a flat, hopeless way, rather like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, staring Ozymandias-like out across the desert.

The few shots we are shown of the pre-Drej Earth are reminiscent of the photos taken during the Apollo missions - this lively, elaborate droplet against the naked moon. Titan AE locks onto this brilliantly, the idea of home, of a place which frames and shelters all frailties. Even the way the film has been made - a combination of both computer-generated and hand-painted, the former technique rich with magical conviction and the latter so full of melancholy - seems to demand we remember that human hands have toiled over this. It's an amazing piece of work, and what animation ought to be: the drawing of dreams.

The Flinstones in Viva Rock Vegas is an improvement on the 1994 film, a review of which read "Yabba Dabba Poo!". This time British actor Mark Addy (the one with the love-handles in The Full Monty) plays Fred, and Stephen Baldwin (who raged "Give me the keys you motherfargherarghhh!" in The Usual Suspects, but hasn't done anything notable since) is Fred's even dumber pal Barney. They hook-up with the chesty dames Wilma and Betty and head to Rock Vegas, running up a tab larger Father Christmas's at Nero's Palace in Raymond Briggs's cartoon ("Sixty-four bags of potato chips! I'd certainly better go home...").

The Flinstones has always been about gadgets. The original Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom was full of an Eisenhower-era fixation with lemon squeezers and walking cutlery, and this film is no different. The designers have gone to town with octopus-masseurs and living fire alarms. They, at least, divert, along with all the rock references (Stony Bennett is headlining at Rockefeller's Casino.)

Butterfly's Tongue is a sad, slow film set in a Galician village in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War. An asthmatic eight-year old boy, Moncho (Manuel Lozano) is close to his school-teacher Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez) who likes to tell his class what a butterfly's tongue looks like, or how spiders invented the first submarines, and all that heaven-teacher kind of stuff. But Don Gregorio is a radical, and soon fingered as a communist by the local clergy. Moncho must learn allegiance.

The best thing about the film is that it feels autobiographical (it isn't) with all its eavesdropping. The performances, as hazily nostalgic as they are specific, remind you, naturally, of other great child/teacher relationships on page and screen - Kes, Cinema Paradiso, Danny the Champion of the World. Be warned, the film's devastating finale will wreck your evening.

Cabaret Balkan is, to my mind, an overrated film (it won the International Critics' Prize at the 1998 Venice Film Festival award) from Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic. It's a very black comedy, set wholly at night in Belgrade, in which friends and strangers yell and scrap. The odd short story pulses with fitful violence (two friends fighting over infidelity in a gym shower has all the pressure of Pinter's Betrayal.) The rest just sprawls.