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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/30/2009 3:50:04 PM ET 2009-04-30T19:50:04

Let me state right off the bat that I don’t believe that children need to be fed a constant entertainment diet of sweetness and light. Great kids’ movies, from “Old Yeller” to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” can deal with subjects like human frailty and even death.

And while I’m not saying a science-fiction movie about colonization and genocide couldn’t be appropriate for young audiences, I will say that “Battle for Terra” is not one that I would recommend to parents. Nor do I think it’s smart or interesting enough to qualify as an animated movie that’s really intended for mature audiences.

On the planet Terra, the denizens live relatively peaceful lives, although there are hints of a repressive dictatorship that seeks to control what information the inhabitants receive as well as what scientific discoveries they may accomplish. Young Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) loves to zip around on her glider, and she’s one of the first to notice the strange craft that has appeared in the upper atmosphere.

When that craft sends ships down to the surface, the Terrans assume that the gods have come to take them away, but they’re actually being removed for scientific study. Mala’s father is one of the abducted, so she helps out Jim (Luke Wilson), one of the invaders, after his craft crashes.

The invaders, it turns out, are the last remaining specimens of the human race, who’ve been searching the universe for a new home after Earth was destroyed in a war between the colonial humans on Mars and Venus. Their space-ark is falling apart, and Terra is the last hope for humanity.

Unfortunately, humans can’t breathe the atmosphere on Terra, but that’s no problem for General Hemmer (Brian Cox), who has no qualms about using machines to convert the planet’s chemistry even if it means killing off all the Terrans.

There’s an interesting fable about coexistence and biological diversity to be found in “Battle for Terra,” but to get there you have to endure a bummer of a storyline, a few misguided attempts at humor (the talented David Cross, playing a robot, does what he can) and some of the ugliest character design since “The Polar Express.” All of the humans in this movie look blocky and identical (with the exception of General Hemmer, who’s a dead ringer for George W. Bush) while the Terrans resemble Sea Monkeys as represented in those old comic book ads.

The background design, at least, is gorgeous, and the flying sequences are often breathtaking. There’s also an impressive voice cast (which also includes James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Justin Long and Danny Glover, among many others), although the script prevents them from being put to much good use.

You can’t fault “Battle for Terra” for its intentions, but sadly, you can on almost every other front.

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