Space Travelers: The Animation has one of the oddest origins of all the anime I've come across. It wasn't spawned by a novel or manga or toy line or radio drama, but by a simple gag from the live-action comedy/heist flick Space Travelers, in which a pack of not-quite-criminals bungles a bank robbery while using codenames swiped from an anime series called, conveniently enough, "Space Travelers." That anime was, of course, devised especially for the movie, but instead of producing a handful of necessary clips, director Katsuyuki Motohiro went through the trouble of creating a complete feature. And thanks to Media Blasters' indiscriminate licensing policies, this anime spin-off is now available in America, even as the original Space Travelers still sits in Japan.
The year is 038 of the New Cosmic Century, a calendar supposedly devised after a great tragedy nearly wiped out civilization. But that's not important. What's important is this: shortly after that undescribed calamity, the earth fell into the clutches of the Orbital Ring System, an alien structure that encircles the planet and periodically fries any human resistance. As mankind regroups in space colonies, the only ones to brave the imposing defenses of the ORS are freelance blockade runners, and the most daring of these are the Space Travelers.
The focus of their work might suggest “Outer Atmosphere Travelers” as a better title, but apt nomenclature isn't really the strong suit of the group. Led by the roguish, smirking Hayabusa Jetter, the Space Travelers include the squeaky-voiced, gun-loving helmswoman Irene Bear, humorless android Karl Hendrix, sniveling negotiator Hoi, and a further spate of stock characters with names like Black Cat, Dragon Attack, Gold Papillion, Electric Sunny, and Crush Bomber. I could be wrong, but I think that last one was a weapon in Mega Man 2.
Video-game monikers aside, their reputation remains strong enough to land them a job with the Liberation Army, a seemingly understaffed team of rebels out to shut down the ORS and reclaim the earth. Before they can do this, however, the revolutionaries require a cushioned tank of coolant, which the Space Travelers are ferrying through the ORS perimeter. Accompanied by an earnest Liberation Army engineer named Frank, the ragtag smugglers contend with ORS robot troops, rival mercenaries, and more than one predictable betrayal.
Space Travelers: The Animation is so utterly banal that it deadens the senses. It perpetually rides the line between half-serious space fantasy and pure farce, never quite grasping the cursory depth of the former or the humor of the latter. Characters are introduced by half-hearted jokes, plot twists are trite, and events are entirely devoid of tension. For all of the action sequences, there's never any suggestion that things will end without the ORS being destroyed, Jetter hitting on an attractive female rebel, and the Space Travelers performing the space-travel equivalent of riding off into the sunset. With its ties to a more elaborate film, Space Travelers: The Animation feels like a massive in-joke that, once detached from its source, has no ground on which to stand.
Then again, I get the impression that it was never intended to be viewed on its own. Space Travelers: The Animation was an elaborate meta-fictional tool in Motohiro's live-action film, which used cartoon counterparts to bring out the suppressed personalities of the major characters. To that end, the anime is little more than a curiosity for fans of the film, though even established viewers might be disappointed with this spin-off's overwhelming vapidity. In the live-action film, the Space Travelers anime was a favorite of one of the bank robbers, but it's hard to imagine anyone growing fond of these boring characters or their tepid exploits.
Perhaps due to its brief appearances in a theatrical flick, Space Travelers: The Animation actually had some money thrown its way. A serviceable look is marred only by a few ugly CG images, the soundtrack comes courtesy of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the English dub is competent. Crispin Freeman (Alucard in Hellsing, Touga in Revolutionary Girl Utena) lends Jetter the tone of a confident nice-guy, and Angora Deb does an equally fine job with Irene, though it's a pity that she's never required to contribute anything more relevant than squeals of triumph and lines like “Twenty-five seconds to complete shield failure.” Similar dialogue infects most of the other performances, which include the under-appreciated Megan Hollingshead (Valkyrie Profile's lead) as the hit-upon rebellion officer and, amusingly enough, “Alan Smithee” as Karl Hendrix. It's good to see Hollywood's favorite pseudonym get work now that they've replaced him with "Thomas Lee."
As only a reflection of Motohiro's live-action film, Space Travelers: The Animation is little more than a plot device that somehow mutated into 60 minutes of rote storytelling. I'm not sure if this was envisioned as a way of adding another layer to the original Space Travelers or merely an attempt to wring some extra profit from the movie. It's boring either way. Space Travelers: The Animation isn't actively awful, but given its overwhelming blandness and limited audience, it's just pointless.