Battle for Terra, director and digital artist Aristomenis Tsirbas' feature debut, was made on a shoestring budget after its festival success as a sci-fi film short. After Tsirbas added an hour to its original length, the film evolved into a child-friendly melting pot of War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars, with an unintentional but successful dose of The Little Mermaid. Despite several ham-fisted overtures, some awkward animation, and a few leaps in logic, Battle for Terra is a solid adventure with a lot of heart. In other words, it has its flaws, but it's no Space Chimps.
Terra is a planet inhabited by peaceful aliens who, for the most part, have never known war, famine, poverty, or a way of life that doesn't work in perfect harmony with the environment. The only problem, if it could be considered one, is the Elder Terrians, whose rule, while benevolent, appears a bit too absolute for comfort. Enter Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), whose desire to explore the forbidden areas of the planet often leaves her late or absent from various community goings-on, to the consternation of all. When Mala's curiosity leads her father to be abducted by human invaders in search of a new planet to colonize (Earth is long gone, and the surviving humans live on a deteriorating vessel called the Ark), she forms an uneasy relationship with Jim Stanton, a stranded human pilot.
Battle for Terra touches on a variety of sociopolitical issues, with mixed results. Credit is certainly due for respecting a child audience enough to introduce such heady matters as religious fervor, bigotry, environmentalism, the pros and cons of questioning authority figures, and the fine line between terrorism and self-preservation. The downside is that it becomes, at times, too serious for its own good and more than a little preachy. There's a one-step-forward, one-step-back tendency that gives the film a shaky feel, and the sketchy animation doesn't do much to alleviate that feeling. The backdrop is usually good, but the human characters have an overstuffed quality about them; you get the feeling they'd ooze some sort of gelatinous goo if punctured. The Terrians fare somewhat better. While it's true that they resemble the spawn of an illicit affair between alien and tadpole, they are, at least, individual alien-tadpole hybrids with impressive facial nuances. It's wise to keep in mind that this is not a mega-budget Pixar film, and isn't going to look like one. The good news is that Battle for Terra's moments of unbalance ultimately right themselves into a surprisingly earnest, engaging film.