With the many beautiful films about space that have awed us recently - Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian all come to mind - it’s easy to forget the great animated films about space travel. They not only amuse us but also bring that incredible world to life for our kids. Each of these movies depict the dangers and delights of traveling among the stars with lovable characters, fascinating plots, and gorgeous backgrounds. Take a break from the more serious adult live-action space films and enjoy some of the best animated films about space that have ever been created.
Sometimes the beauty of our universe is most poignant in real photos of nebulae and far-off moons. Sometimes, though, it’s most incredible when it’s portrayed in animation, all the more so because we know not much has been invented. Titan A.E. is a credit to its animators, introducing the viewer to a strange yet familiar place. It opens at the dawn of the next millennium, a terrifying time when earth’s few survivors flee an evil race of aliens on space ships, one of them the enormous Titan. Our hero, Cale, is voiced by Matt Damon, an actor who seems destined for the greatest of space films (The Martian, Interstellar). Cale’s got a genetic map on his hand that may save humankind - a map that leads to Titan. With tightly paced action scenes that rival those in Star Wars (a definite inspiration for the film) and lots to think about beyond the glorious imagery and fast-paced plot, Titan A.E. is a real adventure film with a sense of wonder that transcends space opera tropes.
Les Maîtres du temps (Time Masters)
Even if you know every other movie on this list, you’re probably not familiar with Les Maîtres du temps, released as Time Masters for the English-speaking world. Based on the 1958 science fiction novel L'Orphelin de Perdide (The Orphan of Perdide) by Stefan Wul, the film focuses on a just-orphaned boy named Piel waiting on a desert planet for rescue. His plight is made more horrifying by the presence of giant killer hornets, a special sort of nightmare, ready to attack at any moment. His rescuers are his sister, a space pilot reminiscent of Han Solo, the pilot’s friend, and a thieving prince in exile. Beyond the hornets are other villains - an army of angels without faces obey a creature composed only of thought. The film starts with a bang and continues to unfold revealing all sorts of science fiction goodies - telepathic shrews, predatory hanging tentacles, gravitational fields, time travel, and a vast space station. If it’s one you’ve never experienced before, Les Maîtres du temps is a not-to-be-missed hidden treasure of the genre - if you can get your hands on a copy, that is.
There are two ways of seeing Treasure Planet. The first is to look at it as an unnecessarily flashy adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s unparalleled classic Treasure Island - and you would be right. The second is to think about it as a wonder-filled journey of adventure through a lovingly and lavishly imagined galaxy - and you would also be right. If you are already familiar with the book, it may be difficult to detach yourself from what you know and just have fun with the film (though I myself love Muppet Treasure Island beyond reason); a child would have no trouble whatsoever. If you don’t mind seeing Long John Silver as a cyborg, the ship’s crew as aliens, pirate battles re-imagined as spaceship battles, and the addition of a robot called B.E.N. voiced by Martin Short. Annoying or amusing? Gimmicky or giddying? Your call. If nothing else, it’s worth showing to the space-loving children in your life not yet familiar with the original literature.
The Little Prince
Having been a fan of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” for many years now, I can’t say how grateful I am that the film adaptation of The Little Prince wasn’t ruined by bodily humor, stupid pop songs, or any of the other unspeakable ills that could have been visited upon it if it had fallen into the wrong hands. It’s so refreshing to find a children’s movie that doesn’t demean its viewers by assuming they’re incapable of understanding complex themes and unusual characters. The film frames the classic story with another tale, perhaps uncomfortably familiar to some, of an overworked, overschooled Little Girl who’s forced to cram for prep school admission when she meets her neighbor - The Aviator. He’s the one who tells her of the classic adventures of the Rose (Marion Cotillard!), the Fox (James Franco!) and the Snake (Benicio Del Toro). That’s what I call some solid casting; the cherry on top is the truly lovely score by Hans Zimmer, which lets the wondrous tale of the imagination float along. If the philosophical nature of the book pleased you, you won’t miss it here. This is a don’t miss space travel film for the thinking child - and adult.
Don’t even try to pretend that you’re not going to need some tissues for this one. WALL-E always makes me cry, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Of course it makes me laugh too! If you’ve somehow missed the story of the little garbage-compacting earth-bound robot, his sleek, shiny iPod-esque true love EVE, and their adventures together trying to bring humanity back to planet Earth, you really, really need to make it a priority to see this one. The beautiful themes of self-sacrifice, environmental stewardship, and actualization are so relatable that the film needs very little spoken language to communicate a touching call to action. One of my favorite parts of the movie (spoiler alert!) is the end credits, where we get to watch humanity rebuild the planet and become healthy and happy again. If that sounds heavy-handed, it’s not - the film is so effective because the audience gets to draw conclusions on their own, and even the youngest viewers will have no trouble doing just that.
Moon Trip Part 1, Gumby on the Moon, Trapped on the Moon
I was recently doing a little intellectual studying of stop-motion animation (ok, AND I was playing with the Stop Motion app and my kids’ plastic toy dinosaurs, I admit it) and I came across this classic Gumby sequence. The music and the sound effects (“boiiiing!”) and the rudimentary claymation all somehow combine to make this film just as eerie for me as Interstellar or Gravity - it has that chills down your spine feeling from the first moment that those little pyramidic aliens start popping their eyes out and following Gumby around. While I don’t know if I can call it a “great film” (these three combined in the video only comprise a total of 15 minutes), it’s one that my kids and I absolutely love watching for its simple, well-timed jokes and connection you feel with the characters from the very first scene. (Plus I love watching them “melt” into the sidewalk when something flies overhead. Too much fun.)